LA county clears homeless camp off VA campus; vets offered shelter inside

A bulldozer roared outside GemBob Brookhyser’s tent Monday morning as he jerked into an extension cord trapped in a jumble of his belongings. Half a dozen veterans of the Veterans Row homeless camp along San Vicente Boulevard struggled to get their belongings in the bins and onto moving carts driven by volunteers.

Tensions were high on the day of the move in the camp, which is located along the perimeter of the historic Veterans Affairs campus near Brentwood. About 4,000 veterans of the county are homeless, and about 40 have lived in the Veterans Row camp for the past many months.

The effort was a by-product of several months of outreach work to the homeless veterans community, said Robert Reynolds, an advocate for AMVETS, the veterans service organization. Proponents say they have met veterans on the street to prepare them to leave camp and move into a temporary tent village on the VA campus itself. The process can be shocking.

Robert Reynolds, center, a veteran lawyer at Amvets, joins LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva.

Robert Reynolds, center, a veterans lawyer at Amvets, walks Monday with Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva as they tour the Veterans Row camp along San Vicente Boulevard.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

“You get a veteran inside, another shows up,” Reynolds said. A lack of resources offered by the federal Department of Veterans Affairs has led to a steady increase in the number of homeless veterans, he said, leading to the campus off-campus.

Volunteers say the next step is to hold the VA accountable for its promise to find housing for the veterans and make sure the tent village on campus does not become another forgotten Veterans Row. The VA intends to move the veterans into a small village on campus when completed. Several small houses are already inhabited by veterans, but dozens more are to be built.

“It’s annoying and heartbreaking because for so long these veterans were forgotten,” said Diego Garcia, an outreach volunteer and military veteran working for AMVETS.

Last month, U.S. Veterans Secretary Denis McDonough promised to find housing for the veterans from the camp earlier this month and for 500 other homeless veterans by the end of the year.

“I think one of the things we’re really trying to do is focus on concentrated outreach contact with individuals,” said the director of VA Medical Center, Dr. Steven Braverman, after the camp was cleared. “We try to understand that sometimes people need to be treated as peers, as part of a community, and try to keep people comfortable while making the transition and working with them.”

A man sitting on a curb has his head down between his arms and legs.

Some of the veterans living in the Veterans Row camp along San Vicente Boulevard were upset when cleanup crews worked their way from tent to tent.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The number of veterans at the San Vicente camp has fluctuated, but a count last month put it at about 40. Monday morning, there were only six veterans left at the Veterans Row camp.

Brookhyser, a veteran of the U.S. Army, tried to move his items before a bulldozer from LA County could come and scrape away the tent he has been living in for the past year.

“It’s been surreal,” Brookhyser, 52, said when describing his time at the site. “All these people have these fancy [homes] and they do not want us here. Although this property belongs to us. That is why we must line up with what we always line up with. I’ve got water, beer thrown at me. Those people are honking their horns, they are harassing us. Without reason.”

When the bulldozer smashed furniture and a metal shed, Rick Reeves Jr., another military veteran, went into the tent where he has lived for the past two years.

Members of a cleanup team are dismantling tents at Veterans Row's homeless camp.

Members of the cleanup staff are dismantling tents at the Veterans Row homeless camp along San Vicente Boulevard just off the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs campus Monday morning.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

“It could have gone so much worse,” he said. “Most of my stuff is already getting ready for storage. I’m ready to move on from here. It’s been a real mess on the line.”

Volunteers helped veterans load their belongings onto moving trucks, and some will be able to use storage space on the VA campus, Reynolds said.

Douglas Bue, 65, got through the cleanup in a wheelchair. He mocked the scene around him where he lived the last month.

A man is holding two plastic baskets.

Army veteran Douglas Steven Bue, 65, who has moved into the VA campus, is helping other veterans move and switch to campus.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

“Look at this. No human deserves to live like this,” said the military veteran. “They have a good, clean property. They can provide three meals a day. They deserve better. There is a lack of care for the war. People do not love veterans “They should not love each other as they should.”

More than 40 veterans lived on Veterans Row when LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva announced his plans to clear out the camp earlier this year. Since then, volunteer groups and advocates have met with the veterans to facilitate their relocation to the VA campus, which dates back to 1888 and covers about 400 acres. More than 20 tents have been set up on campus along with the small village with small houses.

The goal is to find more permanent housing for the veterans who are now in the temporary camp on campus, said Sheriff’s Lieutenant Geff Deedrick. Most of the work has been centered on outreach work and building a relationship with the veterans.

“It’s about compassion and understanding,” said Deedrick, who heads the department’s Homeless Outreach Services.

Surrounded by the bulldozer’s drone and the sheriff’s deputies, Villanueva said: “It’s not an option to get people to camp out on the streets.”

During the cleanup, several veterans became emotional and called the lack of support they have received from the larger VA organization condemning. A veteran who said he would go when he was ready screamed that he was left to die by his country. He grabbed his head and arms and asked no one in particular to give him space.

The sheriff's deputy in LA County helped homeless veterans pack up to leave their camp.

Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies document the move as a number of organizations, with the support of the sheriff’s deputies, helped homeless veterans pack up to leave their camp.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Deputies and volunteers watched as the veteran stepped outside his tent and asked them what they were watching. He was standing outside his tent as the bulldozer went down the line and cleared the adjacent tents. Shortly after 2 p.m., he gave in and went out with his belongings. Volunteers helped him bring more things to the VA campus.

Leave a Comment