Homeless Vets' Tough L.A. Winter 

Many reject society's lofty plans for them

Thursday, Jan 24 2013

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.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JESSICA P. OGILVIE - During the cold snap, Sheen joined many at the Armory shelter, less than a mile from Brentwood's mansions.
  • During the cold snap, Sheen joined many at the Armory shelter, less than a mile from Brentwood's mansions.

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"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.

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