It took more than five years, lawmakers weren't shy to point out, but Veterans Affairs broke ground Friday on new apartments that will shelter some of area's hardest-to-reach homeless veterans.
The VA is starting renovations to convert Building 209, a vacant and historic stucco building on the West Los Angeles Medical Center campus in Brentwood, into transitional housing for 66 veterans with mental health and medical needs.
"We have to go after the people who have refused us time after time," who have substance abuse or mental health problems, said Los Angeles County Third District Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.
The veterans will have access to physicians, nutritionists and counselors, along with help shopping, cooking and finding jobs. The goal is to eventually transition them into their own permanent housing, where they can "lead independent and productive lives in the community," said Donna Beiter, the VA's healthcare systems director in the L.A. area.
Michelle O'Neil, who became homeless after serving 11 years in the Army reserves in the 1980s, said when veterans are placed in stable environments and get help doing daily tasks they "can't go wrong."
She led the Pledge of Allegiance at Friday's ground breaking ceremony.
With the same type of assistance that will be provided at Building 209, O'Neil said she was able to find a job, then earn her bachelor's degree in human services. Now she's working towards a master's degree in social services, works at the VA facility in downtown Los Angeles and volunteers with the Santa Monica Police Department's homeless liaison program.
"If they don't have to stress about food, if they have everything they need in one place, they can focus on 'the normal person phase,'" she said.
The American Civil Liberties Union has sued the VA on allegations veterans currently have limited access to, or are prohibited from accessing about one-third of the sprawling West L.A. campus. The lawsuit seeks to prevent the federal government from renting some of its space to private companies that do not provide health care-related services.
In 2007, VA Secretary Jim Nicholson designated three buildings—buildings 205, 208, and 209—to be renovated for long-term therapeutic housing for homeless veterans, said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles).
"It is now more than five years later, and while we recognize this first step today, it is long overdue," he said.
Amenities at the renovated Building 209 will include: a library, a multipurpose room for activities like yoga, a kitchen and internet cafe. It will also include a wing for women veterans undergoing treatment.
"This is the beginning of a new day," said Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who was a social worker at Ft. Carson in Colorado during the Vietnam War.
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