Inside the fight to end veteran homelessness

What will it take to get veterans off the streets.

Colin Ahasay looks like an LA surfer, with blonde hair and tattooed arms. But the 28-year-old is a U.S. Army combat veteran, and one of approximately 1,300 homeless veterans living in Los Angeles.

“It wasn’t until three weeks ago,” he said, “living on the street by myself that it really all kind of sunk in.”

Ahasay went into the military straight out of high school and was discharged in 2010 because of a back injury. Once out, Ahasay floundered. He went home to Green Bay, Wisconsin. He struggled with drug addiction as well as post-traumatic stress, partly from his deployment to Afghanistan about nine years ago. He eventually made his way to LA to stay with a friend, until that fell through.

We spoke at a Westside shelter for homeless male veterans run by PATH, or People Assisting the Homeless.

“It’s helpful being here,” Ahasay said, “where I can have a place to focus on some of the issues from my past.”

Colin Ahasay, 28, was deployed to Afghanistan about nine years ago. He left the U.S. Army because of a back injury. He overcame the drug addiction that followed, but still struggles with PTSD.
Colin Ahasay, 28, was deployed to Afghanistan about nine years ago. He left the U.S. Army because of a back injury. He overcame the drug addiction that followed, but still struggles with PTSD. Photo by Amy Ta

Two years ago, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, along with dozens of mayors from across the country, accepted a White House challenge to end veteran homelessness in the city by the end of 2015. Since then the city has housed more than 7,000. Garcetti maintains that the city is on track to officially end veteran homelessness next year. That’s two years after the original deadline, but LA started out with the largest homeless population in the country. Garcetti sees the progress in combatting veterans’ homelessness as a case study for how LA could solve its larger, growing homeless crisis.

“If we can do this with veterans,” he said, “if we can solve this, this is a solvable problem.”

On the ground level, however, the work to house veterans has been extremely difficult.

Haley Fuselier, director of programs for the PATH shelter where Ahasay lives, says LA’s low vacancy rate and reluctance from landlords makes it hard to place the men in longterm housing. Many of the men at the shelter have federal housing vouchers specifically for veterans, but property owners don’t always accept them.

“This is a six-month program and we’re finding that a lot of guys are at nine [months], almost a year, because we can’t find them housing,” said Fuselier. “The vouchers are only worth $1,500, so if you want to have a $2,000 one-bedroom… we don’t have access to it.”

Haley Fuselier directs programs at PATH’s West LA shelter. She says finding apartments for the men in this part of town is difficult, even though many have federal housing vouchers.
Haley Fuselier directs programs at PATH’s West LA shelter. She says finding apartments for the men in this part of town is difficult, even though many have federal housing vouchers. Photo by Amy Ta

There are some critics of the effort to house homeless veterans.

Andy Bales is the CEO of the Union Rescue Mission, a shelter on Skid Row. He says that putting so much attention on one segment of the homeless population inevitably diverts resources away from the rest of the 28,000 people living on LA’ streets, even if there’s no change in government spending.

“Some [private] foundations that supported us have said no, we’re shifting it all to housing first and permanent supportive housing and housing for veterans,” Bales said. “We can no longer support you.”

He said his facility is $700,000 behind in revenue this year and “scrambling to keep up.”

Army veteran Ahasay is scrambling too. He’s taking classes at Santa Monica College, but doesn’t know what he wants to do with his future. He says his priority, even more than finding a place to live, is dealing with his past trauma.

“If I end up going back to doing things the way I did in the past, I will go to prison” he said. “I will be the statistic.”

Ahasay does have one idea for bringing down veteran homelessness: more help from the military for soldiers re-integrating into civilian life. That, he says, could help more veterans from slipping into homelessness in the first place.