WILSHIRE BLVD — Every Sunday for the last four years, 70-year-old Bob Rosebrock has faithfully manned his post at the corner of Wilshire and San Vicente boulevards, just feet from a sprawling park at the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs campus.
While others may see a shaded lawn fit for picnics and pick-up games, Rosebrock, who served in the U.S. Army during the 1960s, sees a future home for homeless veterans who are physically disabled or suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the alcoholism and drug addiction that so often comes from self medicating.
Currently there is no permanent supportive housing for veterans on the 387 acres of the VA campus in Westwood, something Rosebrock considers a travesty given that the land was donated to the federal government in 1888 for the purpose of establishing and permanently maintaining a home for disabled veterans. What’s more egregious, he said, is that the VA is renting out that land to private companies and pocketing the money instead of building housing.
“To see how homeless, disabled veterans are treated, it’s hard to grasp that when you see how prosperous this country is,” Rosebrock, a tall, broad-shouldered man with a mustache, bushy eyebrows and white hair, said last Sunday as he stood at his post and waved at cars passing by, a sign reading “Save Our Veterans Land” resting against his legs.
“A soldier’s work is never done and we will not stop until this land is made a home.”
Officials with the West L.A. VA said they have a number of programs to help veterans receive treatment, whether it be for a few months or several years. The VA also partners with nonprofits to reach out to the estimated 8,200 currently living on the streets of the greater Los Angeles area as well as those who are in jail to ensure they have a transition plan when released, said Michelle Wildy, chief of community care at the West L.A. VA.
Housing vouchers are distributed to assist with rent payments, thousands of beds are available for those in transition and construction is underway at a 174-bed facility on the Sepulveda Boulevard campus that will provide permanent supportive housing with wrap-around services to keep veterans on track toward recovery. That facility is expected to be completed in 2013.
Another building on the West L.A. VA campus — Building 209 — is currently being retrofitted and has dedicated funding from Congress to be transformed into housing for those veterans who are chronically homeless. Other buildings have been identified but funding has not been allocated.
“From the president on down, the commitment is to end homelessness by 2015,” Wildy said. “Homelessness among veterans has declined about 12 percent in 2011.”
Some of that reduction can be attributed to Project 60, an effort launched by the Department of Veterans Affairs in February 2011 to identify and house 60 of the most chronically homeless veterans by partnering with nonprofits and communities like Santa Monica. The two-year program was so successful that it has since expanded to include 120 veterans, Wildy said.
While that is a step in the right direction, Rosebrock and others feel that it is too little too late and are calling on the federal government to set aside more funding to construct housing for homeless vets on the campus so that they can more easily access the treatments they need.
“You can’t end homelessness unless you provide a home for the most seriously disabled,” Rosebrock said.
And he has reinforcements. They are his fellow veterans — members of “the old guard” who too dedicate many of their Sundays to the cause by waving flags or carrying handmade signs calling attention to their battle.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California has also joined the fight, filing a lawsuit on behalf of four homeless veterans with PTSD that challenges the VA to provide permanent supportive housing at the West L.A. campus, particularly for those who are disabled and cannot make it to their treatments on a regular basis. The ACLU is hoping to go to trial this summer.
Officials with the West L.A. VA said they could not comment on the lawsuit because it is still pending.
David Sapp is an attorney with the ACLU and gives credit to Rosebrock and his troops for continuing to put pressure on the VA, Congress and the White House to allocate the resources needed to house the homeless vets. (The ACLU represented Rosebrock in 2010 when he was cited six times by the VA for displaying the American flag on VA property upside down, a signal of distress, to draw attention to the fight for housing. The citations were eventually dismissed.)
“Having people there that committed underscores the seriousness of the issue. There’s no two ways about that,” Sapp said of the old guard. “When you have people that passionate, who have been there week after week, that keeps things on the radar screen.”
One of those troops is 73-year-old Larry Kegel, a Los Angeles native who served in the Army from ‘59 to ‘65 as a mechanic and driver. The Canyon Country resident attends the Sunday demonstrations as often as he can. When he’s not there, the former brakes and drapes salesman can be found volunteering with veterans groups to greet those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I’m hoping the government does what’s right before I die,” he said last Sunday as he struggled to keep upright a long sign that was being tossed about by the strong winds. “These men and women pledged to lay down their lives for our country. They did their part. The country is not doing its part.”
Kegel’s sentiments are echoed by the eight to 10 fellow members of the old guard who attend the Sunday demonstrations regularly. They include: 80-year-old Hank Papeika, a former engineer in the Navy who moved to Los Angeles after World War II to help build streets and freeways; Ernie Hilger, 71, a former brewer for Schlitz; David Bischoff, 65, a Vietnam vet and plumber with the City of Los Angeles who also runs a theatre company with his wife in Pasadena; and 62-year-old Steve Mackey, a retired officer with the California Highway Patrol and former door gunner on a Huey helicopter during Vietnam who travels from Riverside, Calif. to Westwood roughly three times a month with his wife, who brings refreshments for the fellows lined along Wilshire.
They all come because they not only feel they have a duty to do so, but also because they consider themselves fortunate that they had family and friends to turn to when they got back from the battle zone. They remember the protests following the Vietnam War and the feeling that their country had turned its back on them. They know about the depression that follows and the difficulty adjusting to a normal life.
“I’m lucky I made it,” Bischoff said as he waved the black and white POW/MIA flag. “I had people that supported me. Not everybody does.”
Supporting one another as they walk back and forth on Wilshire Boulevard waving their flags is also a reason they keep coming back to that corner in Westwood. Though strangers at first, they have become family. Their weekly gatherings serve as a reunion of sorts, affording them the opportunity to talk about their experiences in war as well as what’s happening in their lives today.
“It doesn’t matter what race you are or what sex you are. There’s just this instant connection,” Mackey said.
And that’s why a home for veterans is needed, so that those who have seen the worst of war have someone to talk to, someone they can relate to and hopefully work through issues so that they can recover.
“It makes them feel comfortable,” Hilger said. “They understand one another. And that’s what we want here.”
Rosebrock has spent 211 Sundays at that corner in Westwood and he plans on being there again this Sunday, with or without reinforcements. For him, this is a fight he will never surrender willingly.
“We saw what happened to Vietnam veterans and I don’t want that to happen to those from Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “This is their home and they need our help to get it back to what it once was, a nice home for the guys to feel comfortable.”