WEST LOS ANGELES – Service and sacrifice were principles instilled in Ryan Higgins at a young age, so when he was old enough, he joined the United States Navy.
“I was sworn in by my father. And after boot camp with the Navy, I got orders from the Marine Corps and I did most of my time with 1/5, 2/5, 3/5 with the Marine Corps,” said Higgins.
He served as a combat medic from 1999 to 2004. His veteran friends around here call him 'Doc.'
But for the last five years, PTSD and drug use have kept him shuffling back and forth between social programs and homelessness.
“You gotta keep a good sense of humor,” Higgins said. “You gotta laugh. You gotta laugh, or you’re gonna cry.”
Even so, he’s not doing so bad. He has a roof, he sleeps on a cot, and he has his books and plants to keep him company.
He could have so much more though, mainly regular access to a bathroom and social services, which they offer a stone’s throw away, on the other side of the fence at the West L.A. VA Campus.
“I didn’t like the way they were handling vets, to use a bathroom you need to sign a contract. I’ve signed plenty of contracts with the VA, I don’t want to sign any more. I just need someone to be straight up,” Higgins said.
He’s not alone. One third of all homeless veterans in the country live in Lo Angeles. The person in charge of trying to find homes for them is another Marine Corps veteran, Matthew McGahran.
“Our biggest challenge is to find housing for all our veterans,” McGahran said.
McGahran is hopeful that a new, first-in-the-nation program which allows veterans to live in tents on campus will help get them off the streets, for good.
“Using the VA grounds for a tent city though, for this kind of initiative, is new and we are excited that we were allowed to do it,” McGahran said.
Unlike with other VA programs, the 45 vets living in the tent city don’t have to meet sobriety or treatment goals in order to participate. But having them interact with VA staff and build trust means that a handful of the veterans have gone on to more robust care and therapy programs.
“I think it’s great,” McGahran said. “I think it’s one of the better things I have ever seen.”
But if this is such a success, why did it take so long for something like it to happen?
“Well, like I said, the VA is a bureaucracy and there are rules about what we are allowed to do and not allowed to do on campus," McGahran said. "And because of the pandemic, it gave us the flexibility to establish something like this.”
Even though the pandemic forced the VA to make quick decisions, the red tape still wouldn’t green light the buying of tents or food for the vets, it’s all donated.
That's perhaps why some homeless vets still have trouble trusting the VA.
“I think that’s the whole problem with the VA,” Higgins said. “I think there is plenty of good people in the VA, they’re drowned out by lot of red tape.”
And so even though the tent encampment on VA property offers more services, Higgins and his friends choose to spend their days a few feet away, on the street.