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Did the VA secretary come through on his promise to house hundreds of veterans in LA?


There are more homeless military veterans in Los Angeles than anywhere else in the country - nearly 4,000 by last count. The U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough promised in October to house hundreds of them by the end of the year. Did it happen? As Anna Scott of member station KCRW reports, that depends on how you define housing.

ANNA SCOTT, BYLINE: Secretary McDonough made his promise after visiting a big homeless encampment in West LA, where about 40 military veterans lived at the time. They nicknamed the camp Veterans Row. McDonough actually made two promises.


DENIS MCDONOUGH: First, we're going to get the vets currently living on Veterans Row into housing by November. Second, we're going to get an additional 500 homeless vets in Los Angeles into housing by the end of this year.

SCOTT: McDonough declared victory last month on the first promise to house everyone from the Veterans Row encampment, except housing doesn't necessarily mean a home.

Can you describe what we're looking at? It's a row of tents.

JAMES GEMBOB BROOKHYSER: Well, those are the tents, but these are where I just moved into. So I'm in that row right there.

SCOTT: That's Army veteran James GemBob Brookhyser (ph).

BROOKHYSER: When I became homeless, it was pretty difficult to deal with. Like, I lost all my belongings.

SCOTT: He's one of about 20 veterans who moved last month from a tent on Veterans Row to a tent here on a large VA medical campus that's right over the fence from the sidewalk where he used to live.

BROOKHYSER: We were housed better over there on Veterans Row, I felt, with the exception of the showers.

SCOTT: Besides nearby showers and port-a-potties, Brookhyser and other veterans camping on the VA property get three meals a day and access to social services. But are they housed? Not according to Dr. Joshua Bamberger, a physician who treats homeless veterans at a VA clinic in San Francisco.

JOSHUA BAMBERGER: The word housing has been used as a mushy term so that they can achieve that goal without really achieving what I think is the intent of what the secretary requested which was to find homes, not just beds, for veterans.

SCOTT: The VA's chief of homelessness programs in LA, Matthew McGahran, disagrees.

MATTHEW MCGAHRAN: I think the intent of the promise was to keep the veterans safe so they can move on to permanent housing.

SCOTT: So what about that second promise to house another 500 veterans in LA by year's end? McGahran says between October and early December, they'd housed 537. But that number includes nearly 300 people still considered homeless by the federal government. They're in transitional housing like rehabs. It also includes 100 or so veterans living outside LA County. Turns out, according to McGahran, the VA counted people as far away as San Luis Obispo County, a couple hundred miles up the coast.

Do you think it's cheating a little bit to say that the 537 meets that promise that was made?

MCGAHRAN: I think that housing veterans is meeting the promise. I think that keeping the veterans safe is also meeting the promise. I think that any veteran off the street is keeping the promise.

SCOTT: Secretary McDonough made another promise this year about that same campus where some of the veterans from Veterans Row now live in tents. He said he'll speed up a plan that's dragged on for years to build permanent affordable apartments for needy veterans there. So far, only 54 units are complete when the goal is 1,200 - more than enough for all the veterans the secretary promised to house this year. For NPR News, I'm Anna Scott in Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF PECAS SONG, "T-SHIRT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anna Scott