Creating Homelessness in the Antelope Valley, Part 2

Phonehenge West - Schiro

The story titled “L.A. County’s Private Property War,” by the L.A. Weekly‘s Mars Melnicoff, goes into extensive detail about how the ruggedly independent settlers and longtime landowners of California’s Antelope Valley are being cleared out. About five years ago, they noticed an increase in the selective enforcement of zoning rules and building codes, along with general hassling and harassment.

When they got together and compared notes, they realized that something dark, insidious, and deliberate is going on. Paranoia? Doesn’t look like it. Looks like a major land grab, pure and simple, for the benefit of developers with big ideas. The likelihood of this is clear to attorney Robert McNamara of the Institute for Justice, who is quoted:

That certainly does happen. We have seen zoning enforcement that can be explained by nothing else.

Besides, the longest-serving member of the county Board of Supervisors has already revealed his plans for the area on his website. Unfortunately, the place is within commuting distance of Los Angeles. It’s a hardscrabble existence for the “desert rats,” but with them out of the way, corporate investment in amenities could turn the area into… anything.

One after another, families and individuals are being manipulated into leaving, through penalties for victimless misdemeanors and code violations. It doesn’t matter that a community is destroyed. It doesn’t matter how many people are losing what they had worked for all their lives, or how many local businesses go under. Somebody wants them out of there.

Melnicoff says,

Tough code enforcement has been ramped up in these unincorporated areas of L.A. County, leaving the iconoclasts who chose to live in distant sectors of the Antelope Valley frightened, confused and livid. They point the finger at the Board of Supervisors’ Nuisance Abatement Teams, known as NAT, instituted in 2006…

The NAT crew makes first contact armed, and clad in bulletproof vests — an entire team of Sheriff’s deputies, health inspectors, District Attorney’s investigators, zoning officers, inspectors from Building and Safety, and animal control personnel. (Speaking of which, the same kind of multi-agency, heavily armed contingent is sent out against 85-year-old grannies with too many cats. That’s just how they do things in L.A. County.)

The head of the NAT maintains that the safety of his teams is more important than the convenience of someone in an “unknown structure.” Oscar Castaneda, pastor of a historic church in one of the area’s few towns, knows about this. After 22 years of peace and quiet, he was ordered one day to “freeze” in front of his home, out in the middle of nowhere.

An elderly woman in a similarly remote spot exited her cabin to find it surrounded by combatants in body armor, with guns drawn. These crews show up and tell people they are living on their land illegally, and threaten them with liens and bulldozers. People have been jailed for trespassing on their own land. Most of those affected can’t afford lawyers and can’t afford to hire helpers for the wrecking work. People who thought they were safely retired are forced to dismantle their own homes board by board and nail by nail.

Melnicoff says,

Some residents believe that county Nuisance Abatement Teams order the more modest compliance actions first, such as weed-clearing, then build up to ordering residents to remove their homes, saving the county from paying for costly cleanup once a dweller with little financial means is pushed out.

Their methods are effective. The reporter tells of an “off-the-grid family living atop a 4,000-foot mountain,” just trying to be left alone and care for their mentally disabled adult son. The Kirpsies were prosecuted as criminals, in violation for their old trailer homes and scrap-metal recycle heaps. They only avoided prison by agreeing to totally clear the land and move to another state. There’s one family gotten rid of. They had somewhere to go, but others don’t.

Zoning official Oscar Gomez ought to have his own stand-up comedy act. He told Melnicoff that horrid things like sheds and trailers “bring the property value down.” Wait, what? The stakeholders are the people who currently own their land, and who built homes planning to stay there forever and never sell anyway. Why is the county making the “property value” its problem? Why is the county blathering on about “safety,” as if homelessness will somehow be “safer” than even the most ramshackle dwelling?

Kevin Scanlon’s five-minute videotape introduces a few of the people and homes referenced in the article. And treat yourself to Devin Schiro’s enchanting video portrait of Phonehenge West, an architectural marvel 20 years in the making. Many believe it should be preserved like the Watts Towers, the Winchester Mystery House, and other examples of American folk art.

Schiro invites viewers to:

… join a growing community of people who protest what we consider the senseless persecution of a man whose only ‘offense’ is taking a stand on behalf of beauty, creativity, and the inalienable right of free expression.

It is heartbreaking to hear retired phone technician Kim Fahey recount his relationship with the authorities. Fahey became the national media face of this struggle because of the remarkable desert structure, which is being demolished despite the fact that he deliberately built it to exceed the code requirements.

He lost his five-year court fight last month, and has already been jailed and bailed out, and then hospitalized for a medical problem exacerbated by all the stress. He could end up serving seven years in prison, for building a house. On his land alone, there are several people facing homelessness.

Fahey told the reporter,

The story is more important than me, because they are doing this to thousands of people. I’m just trying to bring it to the forefront.


Source: “L.A. County’s Private Property War,” LAWeekly.com, 06/23/11
Source: “L.A. County’s Private Property War (VIDEO),” LAWeekly, 06/23/11
Screen capture of Phonehenge West by Devin Schiro, used with permission.


Creating Homelessness in the Antelope Valley, Part 1

High Desert ViewSpeaking of veterans, there’s a guy named Joey Gallo, a disabled vet with three serious medical conditions. Up until recently, he was living on his own land, with his cat and dog, in a remote location in California’s Antelope Valley. Officials began to show up and order him to get rid of stuff — at first, trash and weeds. Next, it was a motor home they said he couldn’t keep. Then, they escalated their demands and made him demolish some sheds.

Finally, they came back and ordered him to tear down his home. You’ve heard of the Stand Down, an event where homeless veterans can get help. Adding outrageous insult to injury, one government minion presented him with a flyer giving the date and location of the next Stand Down — as if to say, “Welcome to your new life, loser.” Will Gallo’s next stop be Skid Row? If so, he may meet some neighbors there.

We have already offered (satiric) lessons on “How to Become Homeless.” One way is to be a resident of this high desert region which is, unfortunately, only an hour or so travel time from Los Angeles. The local administration is trying very hard to cause massive homelessness out there. The photo on this page gives an idea of the sparseness of the population in the high desert region. There might be half a mile between dwellings. Yet the authorities insist that anonymous neighbors are constantly making “eyesore” complaints about various structures and vehicles, many of which are only visible from the air.

Under the aegis of the L.A. Weekly, Mars Melnicoff devoted six weeks to investigating the horrifying situation, and accomplished what promises to be an award-winning piece of journalism, “L.A. County’s War on Desert Rats.” A message comes through loud and clear: the victims of the Antelope Valley Land Grab are living national treasures, the quintessence of all the qualities that made America great.

The writer shows how the rugged individualists at the hardscrabble butt-end of nowhere are being systematically removed from their homes for some murky, as-yet-unknown reason. It’s kind of like one of those “sweeps” of the homeless that cities do before the Olympics or the political convention. Except these folks are on their own land — or what used to be their land — so the process is taking just a bit longer.

Melnicoff says,

The government can define land on which residents have lived for years as ‘vacant’ if their cabins, homes and mobile homes are on parcels where the land use hasn’t been legally established. Some have been jailed for defying the officials in downtown Los Angeles, while others have lost their savings and belongings trying to meet the county’s ‘final zoning enforcement orders.’ Los Angeles County has left some residents, who appeared to be doing no harm, homeless.

Melnicoff tells their stories. Some are retired people, who thought they were finished with hard labor, and figured they had earned the right to enjoy the little corner of the world they had paid for and fixed up to their liking. She tells of people who live frugal, thrifty, minimalist lives, and sincerely practice recycling far beyond sorting trash into different-colored buckets.

They came here to get off the grid, practice “VONU,” make monumental art, race their dirt bikes, commune with the spirits of the ancestors, or whatever. That’s why people settle in environmentally inhospitable areas in the first place: they possess a fine willingness to trade the convenience and amenities of the city for the space and opportunity to do things their way. They are people who can’t afford lawyers when they’re being railroaded, hogtied, and hung out to dry. They came here to get away from the depredations of gang members, and ran afoul of a much more dangerous gang — the bureaucrats of Los Angeles County.

(To be continued.)

Source: “L.A. County’s Private Property War,” LA Weekly, 06/23/11
Image by AlishaV (Alisha Vargas), used under its Creative Commons license.


The Mentally Ill Homeless: Cause and Effect

ProfessionalIn Looking Up at the Bottom Line, Richard R. Troxell suggests that the arrangements made decades ago for the care of America’s mentally ill have resulted in another case of good intentions gone wrong. It was a reform movement, concerned with disability rights and independent living. Some institutions were terrible places.

Richard says,

Disgruntled, underpaid workers were physically and mentally abusing our mentally ill citizens. Legal Aid in Chicago filed a lawsuit that called for deinstitutionalization. Similar lawsuits swept the country. This coincided with the advent of psychotropic drugs such as Lithium. Mental health providers faced heavy social service dollar reductions. There was the hope that these things could be balanced by treating people on an outpatient basis. They would treat people while they were on a kind of invisible tether.

We have talked about why the consequences didn’t match the theory. When Richard was drafting the Homeless Protected Class Resolution, about one-fourth of the adult homeless in America suffered from some type of mental illness. When he was writing Looking Up at the Bottom Line, the low-side estimate was more like one-third. When House the Homeless in Austin conducted its 2010 health survey, 175 of the 501 respondents had been diagnosed with mental illness.

This was an issue in the struggle over Austin’s No Sit/No Lie Ordinance earlier this year. The ordinance was bad enough already, but it discriminated against people with disabilities of all kinds, and especially against those with mental disabilities. With the help of several other agencies, House the Homeless was able to file some of the roughest edges off the ordinance.

Unintended consequences are the dark side of any social experiment. When plans are being made, the person who says, “But, wait…,” and describes a possible bad outcome, is often labeled as a naysayer and a negative thinker. But sometimes optimism, especially optimism based on the availability of funding, turns out to have been unjustified.

Our country in the 1980s was not prepared for a massive influx of troubled and dysfunctional people into the mainstream. Maybe it all happened too fast, maybe nobody was thinking ahead. Whatever programs and protections were organized for the support of so many confused individuals turned out to be inadequate, and the situation has only gotten worse.

A fascinating brand-new report from Dr. Guy Johnson and Prof. Chris Chamberlain of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia reveals a surprise:

They found only 15 per cent had mental health issues before becoming homeless, while 16 per cent of the sample developed mental health problems after becoming homeless.

Are you getting that? Half of the mentally ill homeless became that way after becoming homeless. Australia is a lot like the United States, and has about the same proportion of the mentally ill people experiencing homelessness. It wouldn’t be at all surprising to learn that half of America’s mentally ill homeless, too, got that way after becoming homeless. It’s enough to tip anybody over the edge, especially in a life already filled with stressors.

Worse, the Australian research shows that the young are most vulnerable to mental health challenges that are caused by or exacerbated by the homeless condition. And, even worse than that, the young are apt to develop substance abuse issues along with mental health problems.

Dr. Johnson, who is a researcher for the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, seems to be saying that treating mental illness is too little, too late. It may lop off some of the problem’s branches, but it does not attack the root. Homelessness is the root of a large share of mental illness, not the other way around.

Concentrating on mental health, he says, deflects attention from the lack of housing, the inability of people to pay for what housing there is, and the inevitable family breakdown that results. The belief that mental illness is the primary cause of homelessness sends the wrong message to policy-makers about exactly what services are needed to end homelessness.

Dr. Johnson goes for the Housing First approach, saying:

Homelessness does cause mental health issues, particularly anxiety and depression, and is a serious problem for a significant minority of homeless people… For homeless people directly affected by these structural factors, the solution lies outside the medical arena – and research indicates that providing housing to homeless people before treating their mental health issues is actually a more effective approach.


Source: “Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Amazon.com
Source: “Research sheds light on homelessness and mental illness,” RMIT.edu, 06/06/11
Image by AR McLin, used under its Creative Commons license.


First-Person Homeless: Kirsten Anderberg

Apartment houseAs we recall from English class, if someone tells or writes a narrative using “I,” that story is being told in the first person. There is a quite a growing body of “first-person homeless” literature, and Kirsten Anderberg is one of its shining lights. Her first university degree was in political science. Last year, she became a Master of Arts in history and archiving.

This is from her bio:

She has published more articles in first person by a woman street performer than ever published prior in history. Her historical work regarding street performance and busking is filling a gap too long neglected.

These achievements are splendid, but consider the irony. If ever there was a writer with no need of diplomas to certify her mastery, Anderberg is that writer — brilliant, with street cred up the wazoo (a perfectly valid expression, meaning “in great abundance or plentiful supply,” and, in this case, it also means “equivalent to a Ph.D.”)

Most of her published work has stemmed from first-hand experience in the areas of natural health, political activism, civil rights, poverty, feminism, performing arts, homelessness, and institutional history. Her “Philanthropy in Child Protection Institutions,” subtitled “Community Volunteers Be Aware: Gifts Can Make Kids Targets in Institutions,” is outstandingly powerful and revelatory. We admire those who speak truth to power, but Anderberg does something even more rare and courageous: she speaks truth to the well-intentioned but clueless.

With a target in her sights, Anderberg is merciless and unrelenting. Her piece on the Section 8 voucher program for low-income housing assistance is absolutely scathing. It drips with scorn, and not in any fuzzy, generalized way. It is packed with specific examples of egregious failure spelled out in chapter and verse. She relates several nightmare scenarios — not imaginary ones — but horrible situations that have actually happened to people she knew and has worked with.

Apparently, in any given area, 90% of the rental units cost more than the Housing Authority has decided a Section 8 tenant can pay. Excesses and follies, Anderberg tells it like it is, explains it all for you, and ties it up in a ribbon with a bow. How many people do you know who would actually call 300 different Los Angeles apartment ads to determine that only three landlords would take Section 8 vouchers?

And then she explains the big Catch-22. Really, it’s amazing that anyone ever finds a place to rent. The waiting time to get into the program can be unbelievable, long enough so a single mother’s kids grow up and leave home before she can qualify, and then because there are no kids, she still can’t qualify.

Anderberg says,

It seems at every turn the government is trying to make sure only a small percentage of those who qualify for Section 8 can get it, and then those who finally do get it, cannot use it!… Many people give up every month in exhaustion, not using their Section 8, forfeiting it after waiting years for it, as they could not find any way to actually use it for rent anywhere.

Even the minor irritations are inimical to the quality of life. Like having the marked Housing Authority vehicle pull up to your door to make an inspection, letting all the neighbors know your loved ones are Section 8 riff-raff.


The Section 8 ‘inspections’ seem more to check on the participants’ behaviors and lifestyles than to actually inspect for housing code and standards violations.

Then there is the ridiculous rule against shared housing:

If two welfare moms with Section 8 wanted to team up and try to find an affordable house together, costing the state less in funds for rent, Section 8 will not pay for that: the two women must rent separate rental units, probably apartments instead, at higher prices, which actually pleases the landlords.

A comment to Anderberg’s (republished elsewhere) article noted that things were somewhat better on the East coast, and added,

Section 8 housing is actually to the advantage of the owner because that means he has to keep places open as section 8 housing and gets a check regardless of if someone is living in it… Any landlord who doesn’t have section 8 housing is an idiot. Most will instantly take it because if there is an empty house in your unit you can pimp the system… A lot of the funds for repairs on the units come from the section 8 money. They are instant money in the bank.

Getting back to Anderberg: She has more to say about landlords, too. And the government:

In all reality, the only reason the Section 8 program is funded and allowed to continue is that it is designed to benefit land owners, much more than the renters. Section 8 does not help renters become home owners. Section 8 will not allow Section 8 renters to pay their rent towards home ownership, as in a mortgage, they may only use Section 8 for temporary rentals, turning it in essence, into a benefits program for land owners…

There is a serious housing crisis and the chasm between the have and have-nots has never been more obvious. This band-aid program of Section 8 vouchers barely functions in reality… Section 8 vouchers are often not worth the paper they are written on… In essence, the government has made the Section 8 voucher program nearly impossible to use, while feigning the illusion of concern and remedy.

“Minimum wage is not equal to minimum rents,” Anderberg says, and, of course, that is what the Universal Living Wage is all about. All Americans who work 40 hours a week should be able to afford basic housing wherever they live. We can end economic homelessness for over a million people and prevent economic homelessness for all of 10.1 million minimum-wage workers. Learn more about the Universal Living Wage.


Source: “Kirsten Anderberg,” Amazon.com
Source: ““Section 8”: The Myths of Low Income Housing in the U.S.,” Mostly Water, 09/19/08
Image by Sir_Iwan (Pawel), used under its Creative Commons license.


Homelessness and Mental Illness

Pedestrian Scramble Across SoCoLast week in Austin, Texas, a man punched a woman, breaking three of her facial bones and injuring and swelling her eye. He didn’t know her. He asked her for money, and she didn’t give him any. The Fox Network reported that Michael Adams previously served a two-year term for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and is homeless.

Newsperson Lauren Petrowski, who interviewed the woman, says,

She doesn’t place blame on the man, but hopes he can get the help he  needs.

The victim, who is scheduled for surgery, seems very mellow in both her thoughts and their expression. Some shoppers will respond to an aggressive panhandler in a way that could, in the mind of an unstable person, be seen as a provocation, and as a rationale for violence. But it’s unlikely in this case.

From her brief appearance in the news clip, it would be difficult to imagine this woman saying or doing anything rude. And, of course, even if a woman did reply rudely in that situation, the man would not be justified in punching her. She was walking on a downtown street, talking on a cell phone, and probably did not do a single thing that even the most paranoid mind could interpret as “asking for it.” It would be hard to picture a less blame-able victim.

After the blow that knocked her to the ground, she says,

The guy was just standing by a tree, staring at me. He didn’t run…

Apparently, he didn’t try to rob her, either, or do much of anything, except stick around and wait to be arrested. Is any of this what a sane person does? Are these the actions of a person who is not mentally ill?

Word on the street is, after being released from prison in October, Adams was relatively stable for a while, before his behavior began to deteriorate. So it could be a medication issue, though this is not known. At any rate, violent behavior got him barred from the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, the shelter of last resort. As one local said, “If ARCH won’t take you, nobody will.”

But whether or not this particular homeless man has ever been officially diagnosed, he obviously should not be at large. No question about that. If he’s just plain violent, he needs to be locked up, like any other violent man, whether homeless or housed. If he’s mentally ill, he needs to be confined someplace more therapeutic than prison, and treated.

While it’s true that many of the mentally ill are substance abusers, we need to remember that addiction is also a disease. Movie star junkies get all kinds of sympathy and support as they “courageously battle” their habits. When homeless people become addicts, they’re supposed to have been able to prevent it from happening, and magically cure themselves.

And many, many Americans have been irrevocably damaged through absolutely no fault of their own. How many thousands of lost souls wander the streets, whose lives were blighted by fetal alcohol syndrome or shaken baby syndrome? Their heads will never be right. How many homeless veterans suffer from either organic brain damage or PTSD, or both?

David Evans of Austin Travis County Integral Care says that the frequency of violence among the mentally ill is no higher than among the average population. But violence engendered by mental illness can’t help but be more noticeable, because so many of the mentally ill are roaming around in the open, rather than being cared for. Austin American-Statesman columnist Andrea Ball reminds us,

Advocates say to remember that most homeless people aren’t violent. The jails are full of people who never lived on the streets.

Of the people experiencing both homelessness and mental illness, a very small percentage are violent and predatory. A much, much greater percentage are confused, beleaguered by their symptoms, and unable to manage their medication if they even have it. A great many of the mentally ill homeless are elderly, sick, weak, vulnerable, and practically helpless.

And when you think about the small percentage of homeless who are violent, whether through mental illness or sheer meanness, think about this. Homeless women and children have to deal with these dangerous individuals on a daily basis, through no fault of their own, and certainly not because they wish to keep this kind of company. Non-violent men don’t particularly enjoy hanging around with these guys, either. They don’t like it any more than you or I would. The difference is, we have doors that we can close.

Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless is calling for the creation of 1,000 permanent supportive housing units for the mentally ill. He says the 350 that have been funded, after a decade of hard work by activists, can’t be built because of Austin’s NIMBY (“Not In My Back Yard”) attitude.

The Fox TV news, by the way, quoted Richard:

The problem is, there is not an adequate response to people with mental health issues in the state, and more needs to be done for them.

One thing is certain. Criminalizing homelessness will not eradicate violence.


Source: “Woman Punched by Homeless Man Downtown,” Fox 7, 07/07/11
Source: “Empathy for the homeless not always easy,” Austin American-Statesman, 07/08/11
Image by rutlo (Matthew Rutledge), used under its Creative Commons license.


Brain Injury, Neglect, and Self-Destruction

Henry the Brain DamagedWhen Andrea Ball recently wrote about Austin’s anti-homeless ordinance, a reader commented,

There is less sympathy for veterans as homeless. They were provided a job by the government, received training worth $thousand to $hundred thousands, have significant lifetime benefits and yet chose to make bad decisions. How much more investment in a specific individual is required?

Well… about that job training… many of the skills are not transferable. They are totally useless for any kind of a civilian career. Sure, a lot of vets come back and join up with the police, but how many SWAT teams can even an increasingly militarized police force use? As for the question about how much investment in one individual is required, the answer is: However much it takes to get the person functioning again.

ProPublica (Journalism in the Public Interest) did an exhaustive series called “Brain Wars: How the Military Is Failing Its Wounded.” Just reading the titles of some of the many articles, you get the gist:

‘More Than Half of Recent War Vets Treated by VA Are Struggling With Mental Health Problems’

‘New Survey: Few Troops Exposed to Bomb Blasts Are Screened For Concussion’

‘Critical Shortage of Army Neurologists for U.S. Troops in Iraq and Afghanistan’

‘Congress to Investigate Pentagon Decision to Deny Coverage for Brain Injured Troops’

‘Soldiers With Brain Trauma Denied Purple Hearts, Adding Insult to Injury’

So, we’ve got something like 8,000 veterans in Los Angeles who collectively own a chunk of prime downtown real estate, yet have nowhere to live. And maybe 150,000 disability claims coming in from the Vietnam-era vets, whose defoliant-related diseases were just last year recognized as also being service-related. And a new batch coming along, victims of the chemicals released into the air by burn pits.

A large number of these disabled veterans are either already homeless, or are destined to experience homelessness, and the resources to provide what they need just aren’t there. But, not to worry. Some former military personnel have been helping to keep the homeless vet statistics down, by the simple expedient of removing themselves from the population.

In The Austin Chronicle, Michael Ventura recently mused on a news headline that caught his eye. “About 18 veterans commit suicide on an average day,” it said. It costs half a million dollars a year to keep a soldier on the ground in one of the current wars. But when they get home — nothing. Or very little. Or, as in the case of the Vietnam vets whose problems are just now being addressed, too little too late. It usually takes more than four years for the Department of Veterans Affairs to settle a mental health claim. And the appeal process is even more hellish than the original application.

Ventura says,

In neglect, many end their sufferings at the rate of about 18 a day — a toll, in one year, roughly twice that of those who died in the Twin Towers. This is called a ‘war on terror’? It is a war that terrorizes our veterans at a terrible cost to their sanity and their lives… Has there ever been a war in which a country lost more troops at home and by their own hands than on the battlefield? Tens of billions of dollars are spent on new weapons development while the Veterans Benefits Administration is understaffed and underfunded. What words could adequately describe such a measure of disgrace?


Source: “Brain Wars: How the Military Is Failing Its Wounded,” ProPublica
Source: “Letters at 3AM: About 18 a Day,” The Austin Chronicle, 07/01/11
Image by timstock_NYC (Tim Stock), used under its Creative Commons license.


Homelessness and the Disabled American Veterans’ Agenda

Trash pit-fireArthur H. Wilson, National Adjutant of the Disabled American Veterans, sees the group’s mission as educating lawmakers about the disabled veterans’ issues. He says,

Ensuring that this country lives up to its responsibilities is one of the DAV’s primary objectives.

In the March 2010 issue of the DAV Magazine, Thom Wilborn reported on a rather monumental event. The backstory: From 1962 to 1975, 15 different herbicides and defoliants (Agent Orange, etc.) were dumped on Vietnam — millions of gallons of the stuff — and large amounts of these chemicals had found their way into the bodies of Americans. For many years, the government denied any connection between that exposure, and the subsequent health problems suffered by the veterans.

Veterans Administration Secretary Eric K. Shinseki shook things up, and finally they got something called the “presumptive service connection rule.” It said that veterans would receive disability compensation for three conditions that are now accepted to have been caused by the herbicides: Parkinson’s disease, some forms of leukemia, and ischemic heart disease.

Wilborn says,

If they suffer from any of the diseases, it is presumed that their illnesses are service connected, making them eligible for compensation and VA health care. The VA estimates that more than 150,000 veterans will submit claims in the next 12 to 18 months, and 90,000 previously denied claims, including death claims, will be reviewed for possible entitlement to service connection…The price tag for the new presumptions is estimated to be $42.2 billion over the next 10 years.

Needless to say, if thousands of vets started to receive payments for being 60%-100% disabled, that could go a long way toward cutting the numbers of homeless vets. Problem is… nobody’s got 42 billion dollars, except the people who profited from the Vietnam war the first time around, and can now profit from it again when the government borrows from them to pay for things like veterans’ health care and disability compensation.

Anyway, it’s been about 14 months since that story was published, so we looked at the Agent Orange page of the Department of Veterans Affairs website for an update. The most recent Agent Orange newsletter was posted in July 2010. If anybody knows how many of those estimated 150,000 affected veterans have actually applied, and how that’s going, and what’s happening with the 90,000 previously denied claims, it sure would be interesting to know.

The same issue of the DAV Magazine also included an article on a much more recent cause of dioxin exposure for the American troops. On bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, both the Department of Defense and the military contractors Halliburton and KBR customarily maintain burn pits. KBR has even been sued for it. (This outfit also works in the United States as, for example, one of the contractors for the Waller Creek project in Austin, Texas. Wouldn’t it be great if they employed a whole lot of veterans in compensation for having contributed to the disablement of a whole lot of veterans?)

Jet fuel is used to incinerate trash and anything else the military is done with, in giant open-air conflagrations with no filters, scrubbers, or any of the amenities expected of, for instance, a factory in the U.S. Over there, America doesn’t give a damn about the environment or the future health of its own soldiers, either.

The dangers at a base in Iraq were assessed by Air Force Lt. Col. Darrin Curtis, who found that…

… dioxin levels at Balad were 51 times what the military considered acceptable. Similarly, particulate exposure was 50 times higher than was considered acceptable… When the DAV learned of Curtis’ study, its leadership was concerned. Of peak interest was information regarding cancer-causing dioxins that had left thousands upon thousands of deployed troops exposed.

The DAV Magazine piece tells the stories of the typical affected service members and their families: a vet with a brain tumor; a vet who has had 15 surgical procedures and lives on 22 different medications daily; and, of course, a family whose home is being foreclosed. So here is another enormous group of veterans who will be affected forever, and there is a statistical certainty that a great number of them will end up homeless, that is, the ones who aren’t already homeless or dead.

The Disabled American Veterans organization has a very long list of things it wants for its members, in the way of disability compensation, long-term health care, and other benefits. Every year, it has a national convention to decide which legislative goals to work on. The adoption of any or all of these measures could go a long way toward preventing veteran homelessness.

Let’s just pick a few of these items at random, and imagine the impact on veteran homelessness if they moved from the wish list to reality:

* Ensure that priority access and timely, quality health care services are provided to service-connected disabled veterans.

* Ensure proper screening and treatment for traumatic brain injury and post-deployment mental health issues.

* Support increases in grants for automobiles or other conveyances available to certain disabled veterans and to provide for automatic annual adjustments based on the increase in the cost of living.

* Provide an increase in the specially adapted housing grant.

* Extend military commissary and exchange privileges to service-connected disabled veterans.

* Support legislative measures assisting disabled-veteran-owned businesses.


Source: “VA links new illnesses,” DAV Magazine, 11-12/10
Source: “Agent Orange,” publichealth.va.gov
Source: “Burn pits: toxic exposures impact Iraq, Afghanistan veterans, families and survivors,” DAV Magazine, 11-12/10
Source: “DAV’s legislative agenda 2011,” DAV Magazine, 11-12/10
Image by octal (Ryan Lackey), used under its Creative Commons license.


Los Angeles and the Vets

Sargeant Fast FreddyA journalist’s first instinct is always to quote statistics, and there is nothing wrong with that. For instance, the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans says, “107,000 veterans are homeless on any given night” [link is ours]. USA Today says that out of every four people experiencing homelessness, one is a veteran. One in four is 25%, and if you multiply it out, that would make a total of 428,000 homeless in the U.S.

However, in 2009, the National Alliance to End Homelessness put the total at 656,129, and you know things have only gotten worse since then. It’s not an exact science.

In the era of information saturation, it’s nice to think that readers have developed enough savvy to know that statistics can mean a lot of different things. Nothing is more tedious than a dispute with someone who says, “You’re wrong, because according to this other survey, only 22% percent of the homeless are veterans.”

Can we just accept the fact that, for a number of reasons, sociological surveys can’t be exact, and move on? In fact, here’s a destination to aim for: the plain, unvarnished truth that 100,000 homeless veterans are too many, and 1,000 homeless vets are too many. One homeless vet is too many. That’s the signal, and everything else is just noise.

Perhaps the biggest news on this front is the battle over some prime real estate smack dab in the middle of Los Angeles. Back in February, the ACLU demanded an investigation of what the Department of Veterans Affairs has been doing with the 387-acre piece of property. The deed, dating from 1888, specifies that it should be used as a home for disabled veterans, and forbids its use for anything not related to veterans. Portions of the veterans’ land have been leased out to a car rental company, a charter bus outfit, a hotel laundry, and a deluxe private school, and the finances looked murky.

The very next day, it was announced that the local government and the Dept. of Veterans Affairs had started a project designed to house 60 veterans within two years. (There are an estimated 8,000 homeless vets in Los Angeles, so that only leaves about 7,940 on the streets.) Question: How is the military capable of flying into another country and setting up a complete base within hours, yet unable to create housing for just a few more than 60 personnel, and a bit quicker than 24 months?

In June, the ACLU filed a lawsuit alleging that…

… the federal Department of Veterans Affairs has misused large portions of its West Los Angeles campus and failed to provide adequate housing and treatment for the people it was intended to serve.

This was reported by Martha Groves, who further explained,

The complaint, which seeks class-action status, was filed in U.S. district court on behalf of four disabled homeless vets; the Vietnam Veterans of America, a leading nonprofit organization dedicated to helping Vietnam-era vets and their families; and a descendant of one of the property’s original owners.

About a week later, Matt Sledge told The Huffington Post readers about a brand new report from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. It indicated that although homelessness in the metropolis was declining overall, veterans as a class have been making up an ever-larger proportion of the homeless.

The reporter names one of the stumbling blocks:

The chronically homeless have burned through their social safety net of friends and family. Physical or mental disability — along with addiction — often contributes to their plight… VA officials, however, disputed the notion that space on the West L.A. campus provided under a “housing first” rubric — which would not require those suffering from addiction to stay sober for housing — would be appropriate for the land.

Following the debate has been a surreal experience. On June 8, one news source said that $20 million had been committed a year ago to convert a building into therapeutic housing. It said the project was not completed, which would seem to imply it had at least been started. Same day, a different news source, Congressman Henry Waxman, announced that the president has signed a 2011 budget item for the $20 million renovation of an existing building. Is that supposed to refer to the same project, which was supposedly already funded and had begun?

Then, on June 16, a fellow named Dave Bayard, the VA’s regional public relations director, told Sledge that the buildings on the land are around 60 years old, seismically unsafe, environmentally unsound, vermin-infested, and possibly lined with asbestos. He said,

These are not places where someone could live.

They got a bad case of “the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.” Five days later, Fox News quoted VA spokesperson Josh Taylor:

The VA plan calls for three of the 12 buildings to be renovated to provide housing for homeless veterans. The other structures would be used for outpatient clinics and research facilities involving the care of vets… he said the VA’s renovation plans have been in the works for months.

A mere two days after that, BusinessWeek published a story by Jacob Adelman outlining the ACLU’s objections to the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center’s plan. Attorney Mark Rosenbaum noted that it included no commitment to care for disabled veterans who need permanent homes. He said,

It is a direct slap in the face for tens of thousands of homeless vets. If you want to imagine a document that says `We don’t care about you and we’re turning our back to you,’ this is that document.

Furthermore, what first seemed to be a promise of three renovated buildings turned out to be only recommendations for which three buildings to renovate. Even the one they talked about in early June as already financed and underway, as it turns out, also awaits its turn for Congressional approval like the other two. It’s just possible that work could begin in December. Or not.


Source: “Homeless vets sue VA alleging inadequate housing and treatment,” LA Times, 06/08/11
Source: “Homelessness In Los Angeles Drops,” The Huffington Post, 06/16/11
Source: “VA moves to renovate buildings in LA for homeless,” Fox News, 06/21/11
Source: “ACLU faults VA plan for homeless Los Angeles vets,” BusinessWeek, 06/23/11
Image by Elvert Barnes, used under its Creative Commons license.