Behind the Goodyear auto shop on Lincoln Boulevard in Venice, there's a dimly lit parking lot with scattered cardboard boxes and two Dumpsters. At night it's as silent as an empty church, and mist drifting in from the ocean forms a permanent fog. Up against the shop's rear façade, there's a small indentation in the wall, about 4 feet wide and 1 foot deep.
This indentation is where Russell Sheen, 61, has made his home for the past three months. A Vietnam vet and self-proclaimed alcoholic (sober for 15 years), Sheen walks with a limp from shrapnel he caught in his left leg during an explosion while in combat. He lost his apartment last year. He's been on the streets ever since.
"I've been in probably some of the worst spots in the world. In combat, in the jungle ... but this place," he says of the streets of Venice, "it's hopeless out there. That air of hopelessness is thick, it's palpable
You sleep like this," he adds, closing one eye and keeping the other wide open.
Sheen is one of Los Angeles' estimated 6,300 homeless veterans, the highest number of vets on the streets in any American city, worse even than New York City. He's among those who see themselves getting a roof over their heads permanently one day. Armed with a voucher provided by the federal government for subsidized housing, Sheen hopes to be in an apartment by spring.
But not everyone who dwells outside the confines of an apartment or home has the same dream as Sheen. Some prefer to stay on the streets, while others see it as the lesser of other evils, such as navigating social services or breaking apart from a community they've come to embrace.
Several days ago, Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon revealed publicly that his son is living on the streets, where Alarcon sometimes sees him roaming, and has been doing so for four years. His son, whose name was not provided, is not a veteran, but he suffers from mental illness, a problem that plagues vets from Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan and contributes greatly to their remaining homeless.
In the case of the Alarcon family, his son was diagnosed with schizophrenia a few years ago. The city councilman's son, now 36, has "made peace" with his homelessness and, in fact, enjoys the makeshift family he's found, his father says.
"He refuses to stay in a shelter," Alarcon says. "My daughter and I were recently able to talk with him for about an hour, [but] one of the most difficult times that I've had with this was watching him walk away. There was nothing we could do."
As more soldiers return from Iraq and Afghanistan, suffering from higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder than veterans of past wars, the number of homeless vets is expected to rise after having fallen from 8,000 in 2011 to 6,300 today. Some will repeatedly choose to make homelessness a way of life.
"Our greatest challenge with the homeless," Alarcon says, is not about creating housing with cheap rents — the dominant but long-criticized focus of many Los Angeles policy debates and programs purportedly aimed at helping the homeless. From direct experience, he says the greatest challenge is "to find facilities that serve people who would choose to live out in the open but are clearly suffering from mental illness."
During his time spent living on Venice's alleys and avenues, Sheen has discovered the spots to which the long-term homeless return night after night to set up camp. There's the area behind an abandoned motel on Lincoln Boulevard, popular with women because it's bathed in light. Then there's the pitch-black spot a few blocks north, for those who prefer total darkness. At night, on Third Street, between Rose and Sunset, a small stretch of sidewalk gets packed with tents and sleeping bags by people who enjoy the company of others.
A young woman who refuses to give her name but offers her age — 25 — sits outside a tent each night on Third, hunched over an open book, using a flashlight. She wears a knit ski cap and articulately explains that she and many others sleep in this spot because they're less likely to be harassed by police.
"It's where we have permission to sleep," she says, "and the cops don't bother us unless we're here before 9 p.m."
Sheen says the location's proximity to a busy street — Lincoln Boulevard — contributes to its appeal.
"It's safer" to be near a busy street, he says. "I've seen guys lying out here bloody in the morning — who knows what happened to them?"
Given the dangers that the streets present, it's hard to understand why a large number of the homeless, many of them articulate and seemingly educated, want to remain outdoors permanently. But for many, it's preferable to dealing with the Department of Veterans Affairs, which has a sprawling campus in West Los Angeles, offering services for mental illness, physical illness, substance abuse and homelessness.
Ken Karl, 41, falls into that category. A longtime resident of Los Angeles, Karl served in Iraq in Operation Desert Storm. Now living on the streets of Venice, he has been homeless on and off since 2007.
Karl says his beef with the VA springs from its apparent eagerness to medicate him, which, he claims, was the same tactic it took to prepare him for combat.
"I do not like the VA here," he says. "All they want to do is pump me full of drugs. Dude, that's what you guys did to me in Desert Storm — we got amphetamines, uppers, downers, it was ridiculous. They made me want to kill myself."
Others are still on the streets for the opposite reason — their dependence on drugs or alcohol. Eric Hill, a 57-year-old whose skin is pocked and scabbed after 15 years of homelessness, served in the Navy between 1984 and 1988. It was during that time, he says, that he began drinking heavily.
"The Navy has a tradition of alcoholism — the 'drunken sailor' — and I fell into that group," he says. "There's a lot of pressure on you, and in the Navy we try to relieve our pressure by drinking. We drink and go chase women."
Now, he says, his alcoholism contributes to a cycle in which he consistently stays away from places that could help him.
"I'd like to be off the streets more than anything," Hill says, but instead, "I drink more than I should."
With so many of America's vets succumbing to long-term homelessness, others are working to give voice to their comrades' lack of a social safety net. On a recent Sunday, Robert Rosebrock, a veterans' rights activist, stood outside the VA's Medical Center in Westwood, just off the 405 freeway, agitating for more space on the sprawling campus to be used to house these veterans. A brisk wind whipped his American flag, and a handful of other protesters shivered despite earmuffs and leather gloves.
Rosebrock, a Vietnam vet, says that the government has left former servicemen and women high and dry after grooming them to defend rights that many Americans cherish.
"We take these innocent young people and teach them to be trained killers," he says. "That's an enormous sacrifice we're asking, and when they get discharged there's no support."
Rosebrock's sentiment is echoed by Gregory Scott, president-CEO of New Directions, a well-regarded nonprofit based in a building on the federal land that also houses the Westwood VA campus. New Directions helps veterans get off the streets, but Scott — who estimates that New Directions works with 600 vets each year — agrees that the country is doing veterans a disservice when they return home.
"They are leaving one war and coming back to another battle," he says. "Here you are, leading a team and fighting for your country, and you come back and there are no jobs."
But according to officials in charge of government programs, plenty is being done to get vets off the streets, and plenty more will be done.
In 2010, the Obama administration announced a hugely ambitious plan to try to end veteran homelessness altogether by 2015. Conceived across party lines, the plan consists in part of providing grants and public funding to community organizations nationwide. More than $160 million has been doled out, and another $300 million is scheduled to be released this summer.
"It's certainly more [funding] than we've ever had," says Dr. Susan Angell, executive director of the Homeless Veterans Initiative Office in Washington, D.C. "We have more creative programs than we've ever had. ... We will have a better picture of what it will take to bring that number [of homeless vets] down to zero in the next year or so."
But the local homeless community isn't convinced that every vet on the street will be huddled cozily in a safe apartment within the next 24 months. When Karl hears the details of Washington's plan, he snorts out a laugh. "Yeah, right," he says.
The well-spoken Sheen isn't optimistic, either. "2015 sounds good and is probably appealing to people," he says, "but look at how many things they promised us in the last 50 years that never came to fruition."
The local VA has a plan of its own. On Jan. 25, it will break ground on Building 209, a structure dedicated to housing for homeless vets. The building will feature 55 rooms to accommodate 65 people.
Rosebrock, who has followed the project with interest, says the feds' languorous speed and stiff price tag for its modest 65-bed project, in a city of 6,300 homeless vets, is a problem for him: "It took them years to find $20 million to rehab one building with 55 [rooms]," he scoffs.
Yet within the homeless subculture of Los Angeles, many military veterans are quick to shoulder the blame for their own situation rather than heave responsibility onto the powers that be.
"It's by my own hand," Hill says of his living on the streets. "I did it to myself; I can't blame the government."
Sheen repeats the refrain.
"In the long run, I try not to blame," he says, "I try to be accountable for what I do and what happens to me." Of the government, he adds, "I just think they're overwhelmed."
One night, after Sheen showed L.A. Weekly around the Venice streets where he's been staying, we gave him a ride to the National Guard Armory on Federal Avenue adjacent to the VA, where a winter shelter had been set up by Los Angeles County. It's locked down for the night, but he'd previously worked out a deal to be admitted late, after his interview. He knocks, and a security guard cracks the door open.
The guard listens to the explanation for why Sheen is trying to get in after hours and shuts the door to fetch Regina, a shelter worker. Regina comes to let Sheen inside.
Before heading to his cot, Sheen turns and says, "It's a good thing you were with me. If I were by myself, they wouldn't have let me in, and then I wouldn't have nowhere to go."
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