30 tiny homes sat vacant while veterans awaited housing
The West LA VA seems focused on anything but actually getting veterans into housing.
This article by Jamie Feiler and Jon Peltz first appeared on Knock LA.
Why Tiny Homes?
The sprawling 388-acre West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs (VA) Campus, deeded to veterans in 1888 as the “National Home for Disabled Soldiers,” contains 140 “Tiny Home” shelters. These 8×8 ft. temporary dwellings are the latest flawed interim solution to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ inability to build permanent supportive housing for unhoused veterans. In the 2015 Valentini v. Shinsekiclass action lawsuit, the VA vowed to end veteran homelessness and stop the illegal leasing of its land to commercial interests. After the suit, the VA promised to build 1,200 units of housing for veterans. Instead, veterans have again been displaced, tiny home shelters sit vacant, and long waitlists persist for other interim services on the campus.
The Care, Treatment, and Rehabilitative Services program (CTRS) started in 2020, after veterans and advocates returned to the courtroom of Judge Otero — the judge who had presided over the Valentini v. Shinseki lawsuit — to argue that the VA had not abided by the earlier class action settlement to provide housing. A minor concession was offered by the VA, and CTRS was established. As a result, unhoused veterans were allowed to set up three-foot high pup tents in a small asphalt area on the VA campus.
CTRS started construction of pallet shelter tiny homes — each unit costs about $10,000 to build — in October 2021, after the program was pressured to accommodate the veterans who were living on “Veteran’s Row,” an encampment previously located on San Vicente Boulevard along the very gate dividing the deeded soldiers’ home from the sidewalk. The Veteran’s Row community peaked at around 53 residents. Most of the veterans living on the row were disabled, and physically unable to live in the three-foot-high pup tents. Veterans in wheelchairs, for example, could not live at the CTRS site due to the size of the tents.
Jessica Miles, an army veteran and resident of CTRS, says that, as opposed to the tiny homes’ relative permanence, “the tents at CTRS were a good gesture because they were temporary… [tiny homes] are supposed to be a stepping stone.” But Miles says that she sees veterans go into apartments with virtually zero support or wraparound services, sometimes resulting in their deaths. Miles says, “This place doesn’t make you feel productive,” and feels participants need to be better equipped with mental health support to survive.
When services on the campus were cut in half during the pandemic, the VA stopped admitting new veteran participants, and forced more veterans to the streets. The pandemic perpetuated a pattern of arbitrary lockdowns and inconsistent services and programs that contributed to the population growth on Veteran’s Row. While the VA put social distancing measures in place throughout the pandemic, a veteran source told Knock LA that COVID precautions were merely used as an excuse to turn away participants from programs.
In 2021, two people living on Veteran’s Row died after being denied services from the West LA VA for months. After pressure mounted from nearby Brentwood residents to sweep the sidewalk of visible homelessness, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and Los Angeles County Public Works forcibly evicted people living on Veteran’s Row in November 2021.
After the sweep, veterans reported that the tiny homes were a step in the right direction. However, some residents say the conditions are carceral. The tiny homes are surrounded by security, visitors are not allowed, and there is still no plumbing available, while conditions are unsanitary.
Devin Sessum, who was living on Veteran’s Row prior to the sweep, said he was initially reluctant to move into a tiny home because they looked “like a jail cell.” However, after he entered, he said he was relieved to be out of the cold. “Do I like it here, though? No.”
Sessum says the showers at CTRS are ice cold, but he is looking forward to getting into permanent housing. He also noted that it’s harder to receive donations at CTRS, and that the VA puts donations meant for veterans at the tiny homes in a storage shed that is inaccessible to residents, while telling Sessum that he already has everything he needs. Sessum added that being searched every time he goes into CTRS “makes [him] feel like a criminal.”
The tiny homes were donated by Village for Vets, a nonprofit with a sordid history and continuous entanglement with the illegal land leases at the VA. Some of these leases include the UCLA Jackie Robinson Baseball Field, Brentwood School’s athletic facilities, and now an under-construction extension to the Metro Purple Line. Some tiny homes were donated over the 2021 holidays by former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who said of the donation, “To me, it was the greatest Christmas gift.”
Why Are There So Many Vacancies?
In June 2022, CTRS started denying veterans placement into tiny homes, claiming they were full. However, approximately 30 units stood vacant. In an interview with the Ending Veteran Homelessness podcast, Chanin Santini, the former CTRS program manager and site supervisor, said, “There are about 140 active tiny shelter units on the VA campus and they always stay full.” However, a source informed Knock LA that around 30 tiny homes were found to be vacant, when a resident discovered an entire row of empty units.
Veterans were forced back to the streets again, some into tents surrounding the property. The VA claims to Knock LA this was due to staffing issues. However, as of publishing time, the VA says they still have not hired additional staff for CTRS. They added that, as of August 19, six shelter units are vacant, with an additional 11 shelter units awaiting repair due to unspecified damages.
There are six temporary “drop-in” shelters being used for unhoused veterans to spend one night, under the auspices of waking up and entering the program. However, the veterans often do not get support from CTRS staff and are redirected a half-mile away to Building 402, an intake center with very limited operating hours. Without support, this complicated bureaucratic process is often unnavigable for people experiencing chronic houslessnes and PTSD.
In the same interview with Ending Veteran Homelessness, staffer Santini describes her job as “really rewarding work for getting veterans improved healthcare outcomes, mental healthcare outcomes, and pushing them along that housing continuum to end up in permanent housing if that’s what they want.”
Santini declined to comment.
Over the course of writing this article, two sources told Knock LA that Santini transferred to another department. The VA confirmed she no longer works at CTRS and is now a HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) supervisor.
Matt McGahran — chief of community engagement and reintegration services under Dr. Steven Braverman, director of the VA Greater Los Angeles Health Care — provided an update on veteran housing at an August Brentwood Community Council (BCC) meeting that Knock LA attended. The BCC is an influential, unrecognized neighborhood council that has exacerbated homelessness in West LA by consistently aligning itself with the interests of Brentwood homeowners and advocates for illegal land use at the VA.
One member at the August meeting, for example, asked why the VA wasn’t simply moving homeless veterans to other states “since there are too many here.” At the same meeting, the group voted in support of a new amendment to the 41.18 ordinance that makes it illegal for people to sit, sleep, lie, or store property in a given area. The new amendment would expand the ordinance to all LA City libraries.
In contrast to the persistent vacancies at the VA tiny home shelters, the City of Los Angeles currently operates its own tiny home villages that are, for the most part, at capacity. Knock LA surveyed eight tiny home villages across the city and found that the majority of them were full or almost at capacity.
The VA tells Knock LA that there are other programs available to house veterans, like Domiciliary Care. The VA describes the Domiciliary Care program as their oldest healthcare program. They say it provides a structured and supportive residential environment, 24 hours per day and 7 days per week, as part of the rehabilitative treatment process. On August 17, Rob Reynolds — an advocate for unhoused veterans — sent a letter to the VA. He noted that some of the domiciliary beds were empty while 37 veterans were on the waitlist to enter the program.
McGahren said the VA has about 7,500 HUD/VASH vouchers — rental assistance vouchers provided by the VA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development — and that social workers and peer support specialists will surround veterans with these services so that they will be housed. He says that the VA is currently serving about 5,500 vouchers for permanent housing, but says the problem is that the vouchers are worth “a little less than the median rent in Los Angeles.” Each voucher is valued at $1,900 of rent per month, while median rent in LA for a one-bedroom apartment is around $2,258.
In Reynolds’ letter to the VA, he notes that the VA has made progress by offering a $3,000 sign-on bonus for landlords to accept vouchers, but that the VA needs to work harder at identifying which veterans would benefit from living in housing on the VA property versus in the surrounding community. Some veterans with mental health issues do not do well when placed in an apartment by themselves with no support network, far away from the VA where they get their medical care.
CTRS Red Tape and Unjustified Evictions
Not only are veterans waiting to enter support programs, but the VA is actively exiting veterans from programs, including CTRS. Veterans also allege the staff does not provide the services the CTRS program has promised through their low-barrier service model. According to the VA, CTRS holds a weekly Veteran Engagement Group, where residents can voice concerns and staff are supposed to develop solutions or consult with VA leadership to address raised issues. However, veterans who have attended these meetings say they have been continuously ignored and faced repercussions for speaking out.
After raising several concerns to staff about harassment, Jessica Miles experienced a seemingly arbitrary eviction from her tiny home. Social workers arrived and locked her belongings in her tiny home and would not allow her to retrieve them at first. Miles received no advance notice of her eviction, and the only resource the VA provided was the number to a nonprofit, LA Family Housing. Miles called, received no answer, and ended up at a nearby motel.
Miles immediately started raising awareness about her sudden eviction. Sennett Devermont, a longtime advocate for unhoused veterans, circulated a petition to encourage the VA to accept Miles back into the program. Miles says she has submitted numerous grievances with the VA, dating as far back as October 2021.
Miles also says that, for months, she has repeatedly voiced her concerns, including to Dr. Braverman, director of the entire VA Greater Los Angeles healthcare system. She says that Chanin Santini directly witnessed an instance of sexual harassment: “I was walking with Santini and I had just finished speaking with her, and as I was walking away, another CTRS resident whistled at me. And she heard it and said, ‘Well, Miss Miles, you do have to watch what you wear.’” Miles noted she was completely covered up in a sleeper snuggie at the time.
Miles experienced sexual harassment not only from residents, but also from staff and security — including more inappropriate comments and whistling. But all of her complaints were met with animosity from CTRS staff.
Knock LA asked the VA if they were aware of harassment complaints from residents, and they stated, “CTRS participants, as any other veteran, can make their concerns or complaints known through a variety of systems.” However, multiple residents, including Miles, have gone through this process and still received no response.
A former CTRS resident, Michael Williams, also said that relaying concerns to VA staff was consistently frustrating. Williams requested keys to his tiny home, a concern shared by many other veterans at CTRS and tiny home villages across the city. Without keys, residents cannot lock their tiny homes. “At some point, everyone has to leave their unit,” said Williams, “and no one wants to walk out of [their] house unlocked.” When he asked several social workers why they wouldn’t provide residents with keys, he said they responded, “Because we can’t trust you to not lose your key.”
After about nine months of living at CTRS, and a long wait for his HUD/VASH voucher to be accepted, Williams moved into an apartment. However, Williams’ apartment is about an hour from the VA by public transit, and a lack of support from the VA makes it nearly impossible for Williams to get to the VA for his medical treatment, services, and social support.
Williams says, “CTRS did nothing for my mental health or growth. They provided nothing to me… or my bright outlook on my future. I don’t credit no one at CTRS because there is nothing they do on our behalf, and staff isn’t held accountable.”
Moreover, both Miles and Williams have repeatedly described unsanitary conditions at the tiny homes, including broken showers and toilets and multiple rat infestations. Earlier this year, Knock LA spoke to multiple veterans who corroborated these issues. The VA repaired some of the showers, but other veterans currently say they are experiencing similar problems. Miles says the showers are still broken for months on end, the water is never hot, and the unsanitary porta-potties leave a lingering smell throughout the encampment.
Instead of resolving veterans’ complaints, the VA instead evicts veterans from programs because of “behavioral flags.” The VA says that “a history of violent or aggressive behavior directed towards other veterans or VA staff would be considered a ‘flag,’ which is an alert in a veteran’s medical record that VA staff use to ensure the safety of other veterans or staff. If there are safety concerns, the veteran is referred to the appropriate resources.”
Knock LA followed up to ask if any of the resources include housing or shelter. In response, the VA responded that they are provided with “resources,” which may include offers of housing or shelter.
A source tells Knock LA that these behavioral flags are often arbitrary, and even if a veteran has a nonviolent outburst, they will get a flag in their chart. Since many veterans at CTRS are going through mental health issues, nonviolent emotional episodes are to be expected. Instead of exercising de-escalation, staff reportedly exacerbate these episodes. Miles says veterans, many of whom suffer from PTSD or are in substance abuse recovery, are punished for their emotional reactions.
There are instances when veterans who have a history of suicidal ideation are turned away from these support programs, with the given justification being that they require a higher level of care. If a veteran with a history of suicidal ideation is turned away from CTRS, and 37 other veterans are waitlisted for the higher-care program, Domiciliary Care, their options for housing become very limited.
Williams has also been critical of the VA’s long term Master Plan for adding housing to the campus. “There’s more in it for Brentwood than there will be for veterans,” Williams says of the plan. “The new Master Plan still doesn’t address all the needs of unhoused veterans seeking medical treatment. Like, thank you for your service, but money trumps all; that’s how it is.”
Williams points to private real estate interests as the biggest barrier in providing adequate services and permanent housing at the VA.
“This property was intended to be a home for disabled veterans, and there were supposed to be nearly 700 units of housing nearly completed,” says Reynolds. “When you have this much land, and this many empty buildings, Los Angeles should not be the nation’s capital of veteran homelessness.”
For years, unhoused veterans and advocates have put pressure on the VA to house people in the buildings, many of which remain vacant on land specifically allocated for housing veterans. Tiny homes have emerged as the latest seemingly interminable stop-gap to accessing permanent housing. Advocates and veterans continue their relentless battle to end private real estate interests and illegal land uses that serve to comfort and enrich Brentwood residents at the cost of veteran lives.
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