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A New Strategy For Veteran Homelessness: A Tent Camp Outside The West LA VA

Former Air Force medic Lisa Thompkins is among the veterans living at the West L.A. VA's tent encampment.
Matt Tinoco
Former Air Force medic Lisa Thompkins is among the veterans living at the West L.A. VA's tent encampment.

The VA sanctioned encampment provides basic services to homeless veterans amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It's drawn mixed reactions from homeless advocates.

Inside the fence on the Department of Veterans Affairs West Los Angeles campus, staged on a parking lot, is a government-facilitated campground that's home to about 30 people. The VA set it up at the beginning of April for homeless veterans who needed a place to ride out the pandemic.

The residents are provided tents, drinking water, three meals a day, porta-potties, and electrical outlets to charge their phones. The site has on-site security and health care as well as access to case management, substance abuse counseling. and mental health support.

Lisa Thompkins, a former Air Force medic, is one of the few women at the camp. She had been staying at a Salvation Army shelter, but was forced to leave when it reduced its capacity to minimize the spread of COVID-19.

"There were some issues with social distancing and face mask-wearing, and I found myself all of a sudden without a place to go," Thompkins said.

As a vet, she was able to turn to the VA.

"Within a couple hours, I was here with the tent, a sleeping bag, and a trunk for all of my worldly belongings - my mats and jackets and all that kind of stuff," she said. "I'm sober today, and I'm happy today and I'm walking in peace today."

Thompkins said she has struggled with homelessness for nearly two decades as she dealt with a combination of post traumatic stress and alcohol abuse.

"This place is awesome. I wish they had done this a long time ago," she said.

Government sanctioned campsite

The VA encampment is what is known as a government-sanctioned or "safe" campsite, a seldom-used option among the tools state and local governments have to manage homelessness.

California has a handful of such sites from San Diego to Sacramento, but the strategy has never been broadly adopted. The idea is to provide a designated location with services that address homeless people's most basic needs - food, water and safety.

Officially, the VA camp is the "Care Treatment Rehabilitation Service" program, or "CTRS" in federal acronym speak. It's a first-come, first-served, low-barrier-to-entry program that aims to provide up to 50 veterans access to supportive services.

"One of the reasons that this is so far working is that we are engaging every day, all day, clinically," said Dr. Anjani Reddy, the clinical director of the VA of Greater Los Angeles homeless program. "We have a physician on site every day. We have social workers on site every day. And so we're really collaborating across this clinical spectrum."

While the ideal would be to move people into stable housing as soon as possible, that can take years under normal circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it even harder. The camp is a place where those experiencing homelessness can stay during the interim.

"We continue to move them towards stable housing but we recognize that that's limited right now, and it may be limited more in the future," Reddy said. "We are committed to keeping the site open during the duration of the pandemic."

Lisa Thompkins says the CTRS is head and shoulders above life on the street. She doesn't have to go looking for food and water. and she can get regular medical care.

"When you're outside, you don't really take your meds as prescribed, or you don't even go in to get checked for it in the first place," Thompkins said. "There are a lot of people out there that are sleeping on sidewalks or on grass in a park or in makeshift tents or whatever they can find who don't have one clue about what is really the underlying issue."

The camp also is what Thompkins called a "wet environment," meaning you don't have to be totally clean of drugs and alcohol to live on site. Thompkins described it as a "harm reduction" environment, where clients have access to resources to help break the cycle of addiction.

"So if you want help, this is a really, really healthy place to be able to ask for it and get it," she said.

Tents in a parking lot at the West Los Angeles VA are part of an encampment for homeless veterans. In addition to shelter, the site provides drinking water, three meals a day, porta-potties, electrical outlets, and on-site security and health care.
Credit Matt Tinoco / KPCC
Tents in a parking lot at the West Los Angeles VA are part of an encampment for homeless veterans. In addition to shelter, the site provides drinking water, three meals a day, porta-potties, electrical outlets, and on-site security and health care.

A way forward?

For some, opening public land for sanctioned camping is a public policy pariah. Some homeless service providers, advocates for the homeless, and local politicians balk at the idea. Sanctioned camps can be difficult to manage and can seem like a city is just giving up.

Although residents of sanctioned campsites have access to food, water and trash pickup, they're still homeless and living outside in tents that lack indoor plumbing and electricity.

Many politicians consider them non-starters for fear of angry neighbors and lawsuits, and some advocates say sanctioned campsites take the focus off providing permanent housing.

At the same time, the urgency of the growing homelessness crisis, and the particular vulnerability of homeless people to the coronavirus, has other people in high places pushing for the government to open its public land.

Southern California’s homelessness crisis continues to worsen, jumping another 13% since last year.

It has some thinking the sanctioned-camp model piloted at the VA could become an option for non-veteran homeless people in Los Angeles.

Among those looking at the model is federal Judge David Carter, who’s overseeing a lawsuit filed by advocates and property owners who charge L.A.'s government has handled mass homelessness with negligence. That judge has ordered the city to shelter thousands in just a few months, potentially in sanctioned camps.

A May 2 order from Judge Carter's court said that while the eventual goal should be to provide transitional and permanent housing for homeless residents, "that goal appears unattainable in the short term." Carter wrote:

"It appears, moving forward, that the most viable option is to use public property for the creation of a safe and healthy living environment for the homeless population currently living without shelter," Carter wrote.

Judge Carter has given presentations on United Nations camps that house displaced Syrian refugees.

In Carter's court in April, Dr. Jonathan Sherin, who directs the L.A. County Department of Mental Health, outlined a vision for "intentional interim communities," where residents have access to food, water, and bathrooms, but also advanced physical and mental health services, social workers, and legal assistance.

"That is something that you contrast with waiting while people deteriorate for a $500,000 or $600,000 unit with long term services," said Sherin.

As for Lisa Thompkins, she is still far from getting into permanent housing, but she has a modicum of stability for the time being. It's the simple things she appreciates the most -- a small water bottle refill station and easy access to ice cubes for a chilled drink.

"It's not ideal, no. But I'm making it work. I've got my pink comforter in here, and I got my unicorn Squishmallow for a pillow. I even have a doorbell," Thompkins said as she demonstrated a little chime.

It's a work in progress. No on-site showers mean coordinating a ride to a nearby Y. It took two weeks to figure out access to electrical outlets for charging cell phones. But for Thompkins, it's still a step up.

"You know, I'm grateful. rather than focus on what they didn't do. I'd really like to focus on what a benefit this is to me."

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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