DOWNTOWN — Homeless service providers at the Veterans Administration, Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health and several non-profits including Santa Monica-based OPCC are working on a new initiative aimed at housing the 60 most vulnerable, chronically homeless veterans on the Westside.

The goal is to direct VA housing vouchers to a population of hard-core homeless individuals, most of whom suffer from mental illness and substance abuse issues and have fallen beyond the veterans agency’s reach.

Those involved in the effort, dubbed “Vets to Home Project 60,” call it a groundbreaking collaboration between a variety of agencies that for years have either ignored each other or worked together only informally.

Michelle Wildy, chief of community care at the VA Greater Los Angeles Health Care System in Westwood, said while the VA has worked with many of the partners involved in Project 60 before, this is the first time there’s been a concerted effort to document and codify the process.

“We decided that we needed to do this formally and create a demonstration project that could possibly be replicated all over Southern California and eventually all over the United States,” she said.

As many as 20 leaders from the various agencies involved have been holding weekly meetings during the past two months and have begun to send out inter-agency outreach teams to search for clients.

“People have bonded, egos are out the window,” she said of the cooperative effort. “We’re all working as one team and that is a big deal.”

The VA has set aside 60 Section 8 housing vouchers for Project 60, which Wildy said she plans to formally announce next month. In two years’ time, the goal is to move each of the 60 most vulnerable homeless veterans into permanent housing.

To John Maceri, executive director of OPCC, the project marks a major change in the way the VA approaches chronically homeless veterans.

“The paradigm shift here is using a housing-first model with intensive wrap-around services — and that is something that the VA has not done before,” he said.

Historically, the VA has taken a much different approach to homeless veterans, according to Maceri, requiring them to be clean and sober or actively involved in a treatment program before they were eligible for housing vouchers. In contrast, under the housing first approach, which is favored by OPCC, homeless individuals are given permanent housing without strings attached.

Maceri said his agency and other partners in Project 60 will play a valuable role by helping the population of homeless veterans that is most difficult to reach interact with the VA.

“It’s one thing if a veteran is going to the VA and accessing those services. It’s another thing if you have a veteran who’s been on the street for a long time and isn’t familiar with the way the VA works and isn’t comfortable navigating [the system],” he said.

Along with OPCC, the non-profits involved in Project 60 are: St. Joseph Center in Venice, Step Up on Second in Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley Mental Health Center. All of the agencies are in Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s district and receive a portion of their funding through his office.

The effort is modeled on the highly touted “Project 50” funded by Los Angeles County that in the past two years has sought to house L.A.’s 50 most vulnerable homeless individuals.

There is, though, a crucial difference.

While Project 50, according to Flora Gil Krisiloff, a staff member in Yaroslavsky’s office who works on homelessness issues, was funded to the tune of $3.6 million over two years, no new money has been allocated for the effort to house chronically homeless veterans.

Still, those involved say they have high hopes the new level of cooperation can improve efficiency and show results.

“It’s transcending traditional barriers between the VA resources and the County Department of Mental Health and then the non-profits,” Krisiloff said.

Wildy emphasized the project is a pilot-program that could attract grants if it succeeds.

“The hope is that when we replicate this in other areas we can get funding,” she said.

In Santa Monica, Councilman Bobby Shriver, who for years has advocated better care for homeless veterans, applauded the effort.

“I’m thrilled that the housing-first idea will now be available to veterans,” he said. “I congratulate the VA for being willing to try it.”

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