When Santa Monica City Council member Bobby Shriver ran for office last year, he ran in part on the simple premise that he could “get things done” that others couldn’t.
The killer combination of his sincerity, relentless drive, belief in the strength of his ideas (and, according to the jaded, his name, good looks and extensive connections) won him a seat on the council, and he has since gone about getting things done.
One campaign message, oft repeated, was that he would work at the local, state and federal levels to secure buildings – currently sitting empty – at the Veterans Administration’s West Los Angeles campus in order that they could be converted into emergency shelter for homeless people. His argument was a pretty good one: Hey, everyone agrees this is a good idea, but I’ve got the connections and the smarts to make it happen.
This week, less than a year after he took office, a coalition of volunteers and social service agencies brought together by Shriver submitted an application to the Veteran’s Administration’s Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services Commission (CARES), requesting the use of three buildings on the property for homeless housing.
The fact that Shriver – and his collaborators — have got as far along in this process as they have in such a short time is clearly an exciting prospect for him: “We started right after I was elected, and had many, many, many meetings with the VA. They were really very supportive.”
He says of VA leadership, “They want to do the right thing, but they want to do it with people who are serious.”
The proposal, though, has changed significantly since Shriver’s campaign days. The prospect of an emergency shelter housed on the VA campus had been batted around for a year or so before Shriver put his hat in the ring. Meetings had been held, tours taken, but VA representatives were reluctant to open the campus to any more services for non-veterans. (The deed to the land on which the VA sits specifies that all buildings on the property must be for the sole use of veterans, but over the decades, rules have been bent to accommodate some non-veteran-related activities and programs on the campus.)
Instead, the proposal requests the allocation of the vacant buildings for use as “long-term therapeutic housing” for “veterans with special needs, with priority given to chronically homeless veterans.”
“It was never going to happen,” says Shriver on why, when he took on the project, the vision for the use of the buildings quickly morphed from short term emergency housing for veterans and non-veterans alike into the sites for a significantly different type of service.
“I went in there agreeing [to limiting services to veterans.] What’s important is that the services will be for chronically homeless veterans”
At the suggestion of the VA, Shriver built a coalition consisting of veterans’ service providers New Directions, Salvation Army, US VETS and Volunteers of America of Greater Los Angeles, that agreed to work together to come up with the best possible homeless veterans’ housing solution.
Shriver is a student of homelessness and housing theory, and the proposal displays his confidence in the “housing first” model of homeless service provision – in which, as Shriver says, “When you meet a homeless person on the street, instead of making them jump through a bunch of hoops first, you just give them the key to their apartment. Then you give them services.”
It’s a bit of a simplification, yes, but is essentially it: “housing first” shakes up the traditional “continuum of care” in which a homeless person is typically moved by steps from emergency shelter into transitional housing, and then to permanent housing – all the while following a case management plan in which he or she must save money, find a job and generally become a good citizen – and instead provides the permanent housing upfront, with case management to follow.
The Shriver coalition’s proposal endorses the housing first model for the proposed long-term therapeutic veterans’ housing, and – this is the part Shriver is feels very strongly about – it plans to offer immediate housing with follow-up services to chronically homeless veterans, some have whom have been living on the streets since the Vietnam era or even before. (See related story, page 1.)
In the case of the VA, Shriver calls it the “leverage argument:” “Many of these chronically homeless vets can’t get themselves to services all over town. But, here (on the VA campus) they’ll have all the services – for veterans with chronic mental illness, PTSD, veterans who need detox, etc. The chronic nature of this thing, it’s not so simple. Having all the services in one place will [make service provision more efficient.]”
Shriver’s possibly controversial determination to serve the neediest, yet highest at-risk veterans is not glossed over in the proposal. In fact, it’s at the top of the page. The coalition’s application begins: “The public is increasingly concerned with the chronically homeless, who are the most visible and most difficult to serve among the homeless population. The fact that many of the chronically homeless are veterans—and that their numbers are growing as more disabled veterans, including women, return from Iraq—is particularly disturbing. The purpose of this proposal is to request that the Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services Commission and the United States Department of Veterans Affairs designate appropriate buildings on the VA West Los Angeles Campus to house homeless veterans with special needs, giving a clear priority to chronically homeless veterans.”
Even with the benefit of the “personal relationships” that he’s cultivated with some of the players in the drama, and “unofficial” support from local VA leadership, Shriver knows that the coalition’s proposal is no slam dunk.
“We have to go to the CARES Commission meeting next month and present our plan. There are people who want to do other things with those buildings. There will be a lot of competition.” But Shriver plans to be prepared. He’s getting the word out – through the local press, phone calls, meetings and more meetings, and he’s circulated the draft plan to members of the Culver City, Malibu, Beverly Hills and Los Angeles City Councils, and hopes to receive official endorsements from the cities before September 14, when the CARES Commission meets.Mirror contributing writer Clara Sturak spent 9 years working in Santa Monica homeless services.