WEST L.A. — Federal and local officials broke ground Friday on a building that will provide housing and services to dozens of the most disabled and mentally-ill homeless veterans in the Los Angeles area.
Building 209, located on the Veterans Administration’s West L.A. Medical Center campus, was designated for use as permanent, supportive housing for disabled veterans.
It’s part of an overall mission to end veteran homelessness by 2015, a daunting challenge given the 8,000 homeless vets on the streets in Los Angeles alone.
Building 209 will include 55 units serving 65 veterans, with a dedicated women’s wing, federal officials said.
Veterans who live there will have access to nearby medical services, and will also be taught life skills like cooking, cleaning and shopping so that they can ultimately transition into private housing of their own.
They will also receive job training, said Bill Daniels, chief of Mental Health at the campus.
“They will learn the skills that they need to survive, with all of the necessary support,” Daniels said.
The three-story building will include a multipurpose room, administrative offices, a training kitchen and a specialized unit to help with medical conditions related to obesity. There will also be space for group therapy, training sessions and social gatherings.
The design, by Leo A. Daly, is meant to evoke a neighborhood with streets, avenues and plazas and let in natural light, according to a fact sheet released by the VA.
It will cost an estimated $20 million for the design, seismic and renovation costs, and another $1 million per year for staffing, Daniels said.
The project is expected to create roughly 190 construction jobs. Westport Construction, the firm hired to complete the renovation, hopes to employ veterans to help with the work.
Officials believe the work will take 18 months to finish.
Officials expressed their delight that the project, almost a decade in the making, was finally getting under way.
As a drizzle fell lightly over a tent erected in front of the now-empty building, Los Angeles City Councilmember Bill Rosendahl told the audience that when it rained, he thought of the homeless, particularly veterans who had sacrificed so much for their country only to end up on the streets.
“This is the beginning of a new day,” Rosendahl said, and urged the VA to continue its work.
The push to renovate Building 209 began almost eight years ago. Funding was finally secured in 2009, but the project still seemed stuck.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky blamed the delay on the federal government and its “intractable bureaucracy.”
He credits former Santa Monica City Councilmember Bobby Shriver with debuting the idea, and said that although funding was in hand, the project stalled.
“We broke through this year,” he said. “They saw the value, importance and urgency.”
There’s another group that takes some credit for forcing the VA’s hand.
In 2011, the American Civil Liberties Union and a host of private attorneys, including Shriver, filed suit against the VA for allowing private companies to rent space at the West L.A. campus while homeless vets were out on the streets.
“Eighteen months after the lawsuit is filed, they’re breaking ground where they’ve been talking about it for six years prior,” said David Sapp, an attorney with the ACLU.
The lawsuit alleged that the 387-acre VA parcel was deeded to the government by a private owner in 1888 to provide housing for disabled war veterans.
According to the suit, the land was used for that purpose until the 1960s and 1970s, when the VA stopped accepting new residents and allowed the buildings that had provided housing to fall into disrepair or be used for other purposes, including leases to private users like a car rental company or hotel laundry facilities.
A federal judge decided last year that he did not have the jurisdiction to hear the piece of the case alleging the need for permanent supportive housing for vets and dismissed the claims on the deed-restricted use of the land in March, Sapp said.
However, the piece of the suit that alleged that the private uses of the campus violated congressional restrictions was allowed to go forward. Sapp hopes to hear the judge’s motion on that soon.