Veteran homelessness a focus as nation honors those who served

The tent city outside the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Medical Center campus just off the 405 Freeway resembled more a military encampment than a makeshift shantytown thrown up by vagrants. The tents were lined up with a soldierly precision, and each sported a prominent American flag.

The impressive display was a mixture of pride and tragedy. Known as “Veterans Row,” the site was home to dozens of people who served in the U.S. military in every conflict from Vietnam to Afghanistan and now, out of uniform, are living on the streets of the country they once defended. 

“We’re not hurting anybody out here,” Vietnam veteran Deavin Sesson told KTLA-TV. “We clean up our own messes, [and] we clean up our own trash.”

Although exact numbers are difficult to track, most officials say approximately 40,000 U.S. military veterans are without permanent, safe shelter on an average night. Speaking at the National Press Club on Tuesday, Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough decried “veteran homelessness” as a phrase in the English language that has no right to exist.

But American military veterans have not been spared by a widening affordability and availability crisis that has left Los Angeles, the District of Columbia and other localities across the country dealing with a rising number of the homeless.

“This happens to be a problem in many cities,” Mr. McDonough said. 

Veterans Affairs Department officials working with local agencies found more permanent housing for “Veterans Row” residents by the end of October. The VA secretary said the next step is to take on the larger homeless veterans problem in Los Angeles and then spread the message nationwide.

“We’re prioritizing this across the country. We’re building up momentum in LA to demonstrate to the country that this is a very fixable problem,” he said.

The issue has become an early challenge for Mr. McDonough, who became secretary of veterans affairs in February 2021. He was a top White House adviser in the Obama administration and is one of the few in the VA post who never served in the military. 

“We now rely on a very small percentage of our population to fight for the rest of us,” he said.

Bridging the gap

With Veterans Day this week, officials say they are on the lookout for any opportunity to bridge the gap between veterans and the vast majority of the population who never served in uniform. The lack of social bonds to the civilian world can leave veterans feeling isolated and disconnected, Mr. McDonough said.

“It’s not on veterans to break down that barrier. It’s on all of us, particularly those who aren’t vets,” he said. “It can be something as simple as reaching out to the veterans in their lives and lending a hand.”

Mr. McDonough acknowledged Tuesday the recent death of former Sen. Max Cleland, the Georgia Democrat who was VA administrator under President Carter before it became a Cabinet-level position. A disabled Army veteran of the Vietnam War, he is credited with making the VA more responsive.

“He understood that we at the VA work for veterans, not the other way around,” Mr. McDonough said. “He installed that ethos in everything we do. We will all miss Max Cleland dearly.”

The Biden administration’s rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years, which prompted the collapse of the U.S.-aligned Afghan government and military, affected some veterans’ mental health, Mr. McDonough told NBC News. With the military representing an ever-shrinking proportion of the overall U.S. population, many Afghanistan veterans served multiple tours in a country that is now ruled by the insurgent Taliban movement they fought.

“If you think about the crisis that we’re dealing with, out of the summer in Afghanistan, the images from Afghanistan, the stories from Afghanistan, we did see an uptick in concern from our veterans,” McDonough said, according to NBC. “Those vets are seeking and getting care in a lot of different ways.”

The pandemic has been no less devastating to the VA than it has been to the rest of the country. The staffers and employees have been “nothing less than heroic” while battling COVID-19. More than 4 million people have been vaccinated at VA hospitals. Overtime shifts were common for employees who risked their lives to save the lives of veterans, Mr. McDonough said.

“We are now providing more care, more services and more benefits to veterans than ever before,” he said. “We’re going to continue to do better for veterans.”

The VA was the first federal agency to require staffers to be vaccinated for COVID-19. While more than 90% of the agency’s health care professionals have received the shot, Mr. McDonough said, it’s clear that some employees will seek religious exemptions. The agency won’t challenge the legitimacy of the individual claim, but applicants will face a high bar for acceptance, he said. 

“We may have so many people who have claimed a religious exemption that we can’t safely provide care,” Mr. McDonough said. “We reserve the right to deny the religious exemption.”

Patients won’t be refused medical care if they haven’t received the COVID-19 vaccination, but VA employees who refuse the shot could find themselves without a job, he said. 

“The whole process could take as long as three months,” he said, “but the goal of the disciplinary process is not to fire people. The goal is to get people vaccinated.”

Assisting veterans exposed to toxic substances on a battlefield is also one of the core missions of the VA. Mr. McDonough said the agency disbursed millions of dollars to veterans and paid toxic exposure claims to Gulf War veterans. Veterans have waited far too long for the support, he said.

“This is just the beginning, not the end of those efforts,” Mr. McDonough said.

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