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Walking Skid Row, With Veterans In Mind

For a moment, it felt like Robert McDonald had finally found his veteran.

The man came sauntering down a quiet Skid Row street, wearing a beige floral aloha shirt, khakis and a bemused grin, the latter directed at the swollen group of volunteers and reporters in his path.

What yall doing? the man asked.

Counting the homeless, responded McDonald, President Barack Obamas Secretary of the Veterans Administration.

I am a veteran started the man.

Oh? McDonald said, eyebrows rising.

…of these Skid Row streets, the man continued, cheerfully. Im coming back from the recycling center. I got money in my pocket, and Im gonna smoke some crack rocks now.

His name was Allen Pugh, and we should all look him up on Facebook, he said. Then he was off, rambling down the sidewalk.

Ah, well. I thought we got a veteran. I was disappointed, not going to lie, McDonald said a few minutes later. At least he was honest.

McDonald was in Skid Row on Jan. 29 as a volunteer for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authoritys 2015 Homeless Count. Its part of an every-other-year effort that helps determine how much money the region gets for homeless services, and where it goes. The last LAHSA survey, conducted in 2013, estimated that the county had more than 58,000 homeless people on any given night. The results of the 2015 count will be released in several months.

As part of the process, thousands of volunteers fanned out across the county over three nights. McDonald was part of the group counting in Downtown Los Angeles on Thursday evening. Earlier that morning, McDonald, the former CEO of Proctor and Gamble and a U.S. Army veteran, had spoken confidently at a press conference for a United Way/Chamber of Commerce effort, dubbed Home for Good. The group pledged to eradicate veteran homelessness in the county by the end of the year.

Now here he was, on a cool and damp night, looking for the problem himself.

Ive seen this before. Running Proctor and Gamble, Ive been to most cities in the world, after all, McDonald told me as we passed a cluster of tents and makeshift cardboard chairs. But its especially hard to see this in the U.S.

On the Search

The Home for Good campaign also aims to end chronic homelessness in Los Angeles County by the close of 2016. The Thursday night trip through Skid Row suggests that this is an improbable goal. Skid Row experts say that the influx of newly homeless people is not stopping, even as those on the streets find help and housing. Then theres the issue of homeless people who would rather tackle things alone on the streets, or are struggling with mental illness.

McDonald wanted to personally help out a veteran that night. About three-quarters of the way through the walk, he approached a tall, slender man to ask how he was doing.

Im blessed. I woke up today, the man said quietly.

Are you a veteran?

“Yeah.

Suddenly, VA volunteers and a camera crew from CBS Evening News swarmed the man and his shopping cart, practically pinning him against a chain-link fence, as McDonald continued inquiring. “Oh, really? What unit?

“Special Forces, the man replied, looking at the sidewalk.

Special Forces! What years? I was in Special Forces, said McDonald, who served as an Army Ranger. Which group?

The man looked back blankly.

Seventh? Tenth? McDonald offered.

Yeah, Seventh.

It would turn out to be another false alarm. McDonald later said that he knew the man wasnt a veteran because most are eager to talk about their unit and trade stories about deployments.

Even if he had been a veteran, certain factors, such as a dishonorable discharge, could mean that he would not have qualified for some services and benefits. A felony conviction, too, can prevent some of the most vulnerable homeless individuals from accessing low-income housing and services, as with Cinethia Palacensia, a woman who called out to the group as it passed her.

Ive been trying to get housing, you know. But Im a felon, so its not so easy, Palacensia, 64, claimed. Ive been clean for three years, havent done anything, but my record is a problem. I can find food. I can find water. Its a place to stay that I need.

Building Housing

As part of a massive lawsuit settlement, the VA will be building permanent supportive housing and services for homeless veterans on its 387-acre West L.A. campus. There are other efforts, too, including in Downtown. Last year, 75 rooms in the renovated Rosslyn Hotel on Main Street were opened for homeless veterans.

Toward the end of the tour, I approached McDonald with a question. After having seen all youve seen today, I asked, how much optimism do you feel about the task at hand?

It is bad out there. But I know there are resources being applied, he said. For the VA alone, its $50 million and 400 workers in Los Angeles thats coming. And to see collaborations on all levels between government and business, I have a lot of confidence in the leadership in Los Angeles.

He smiled and gave me a pat on the back. Then, as he turned around, he found his veterans, though not in the way he expected. A group of men and women from Vet Hunters, an organization that searches for homeless veterans, had arrived. They had not brought any veterans from the streets back to the mission, but all had served in the military themselves. They excitedly milled around McDonald to discuss the nights efforts.

This is the military at its best, right? McDonald said, laughing and wrapping his arms around the groups members. Were all brothers and sisters here.

Then came a series of celebratory calls, competing with each other for heart and volume: Hooah! Rangers lead the way! Death from above! The few, the proud, the Marines!

Their cries rang out down the sidewalk, where a handful of homeless people lay in restless sleep. For a second, it felt like things really were going to get better, for homeless veterans and everyone else.

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