Model Program for Homeless Vets Shut Down

Nothing to be proud of—Los Angeles County has the highest percentage of homeless vets in the nation. Still. So, can somebody please explain why a successful program to take in homeless men and women veterans is being shut down? That’s right. Shut down. Vets forced out of housing and treatment. After six successful years taking in vets and returning 70% of them to permanent housing.

Called “Billets Safe Haven,” the program has 72 beds in nine cottages in a residential neighborhood of families and tree-lined streets. In addition to housing and treatment, Billets offered a haven of safety and a sense of community within a community. Billets residents can walk to shops, bus lines, a grocery store. Its location is part of its effectiveness treating veterans trying to rebuild their lives after leaving the military. Many of them suffer from PTSD and MST (military sexual trauma). Incidentally, both women and men are victims of MST. Recently we’ve handled several crisis calls on our Lifeline for Vets from men finally dealing with their MST.

Vikki Baker, spokesperson for the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System told LA Times writer Gale Holland that “the program was ending because there were better applicants for the grant of $1 million a year.” (Los Angeles Times, April 9, 2019.)  Further, Baker said she could not release names of the applicants or the new grant recipient until June. Billets closes Monday, April 15. June is eight weeks away. Long enough for a vet to disappear down a rabbit hole of despair.

Vets are being moved to other shelters, but they are nothing like the “home” Billets has offered to vets over the past six years. Shelters in other part of the city, while important, are more dorm-like. The  phrase “warehouse for vets” comes to mind.

This is not the first time this has happened. Last year Ann Brown, Director of VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, shut down a PTSD clinic (in-patient and out-patient) that had been running successfully for 18 years to move it across campus into a boxy institutional setting in order to clear old buildings for a veteran housing development that has yet to break ground.

From a treatment program that included one-on-one counseling in a comfortable, home-like setting with low wait times, the atmosphere has changed so that it feels more like a hospital, including longer wait times. Where one-on-one sessions benefited from a casual feel, they’re now more clinical. Brown’s reason for moving the PTSD clinic was similar to the reasons for shutting down Billets: better use of resources. Which translates in this case to clearing land for veterans housing which has yet to be begun. The former clinic is standing empty…it will be at least two years before anything happens, which begs the question: what was the rush to uproot the functioning clinic in its old setting?

Here’s the thing: one-on-one counseling in a safe setting works for vets who suffer mid to severe PTSD. Just as living in a community with treatment and safe housing fosters healing. What, exactly, is a better option than a proven, successful program?

Over the forty-nine years I’ve worked with veterans, I’ve seen this happen over and over—effective programs collapsed or closed “to make better use of resources.”  Better for whom?  The VA or the population they exist to serve? In 2015, the LA VA’s budget was $916 million. If, based on Vikki Baker’s comments above, the VA grant for Billets Safe Haven was  $1 million, that’s .001 percent of the total budget. Billets was successful. Vets healed and 70% were placed in permanent housing. This was not a temporary housing fix with a revolving door.

Last, where is the transparency in the VA? Why is it necessary to put vets back out on the street for eight weeks before announcing the new grant recipient? What changes will the new grant recipient make to deliver “better use of resources?” I have to think services will be cut. Can we really afford that in the long-term? What does that say about our commitment to our veterans?

Not much.

Shad Meshad

As a U.S. Army Medical Service Officer in Vietnam in 1970, Shad Meshad began pioneering treatment techniques for what would later become known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He is the founder of the National Veterans Foundation and founder and co-author of the VA’s Vet Center Program.

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