LOS ANGELES — It can be surprising to hear music while driving past a homeless encampment near Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Brentwood. Lavon Johnson, 34, an Iraq war veteran, has put a piano next to his tent.

"I don't know what I'm doing. I am just pressing buttons. Whatever is in me, it comes out," he said.  

What You Need To Know

  • The Veterans Row homeless encampment right outside of the VA Medical Center in Brentwood is facing a cleanup on Nov. 1

  • LA County Sheriff's HOST team has been going to the area multiple times a week for the last month, trying to get through to those veterans that have been hardest to reach

  • Advocates and sheriff's officials think a temporary solution might have to be negotiated that will allow the vets to move their tents onto VA property

  • Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough committed to housing all Veterans Row vets by November and housing an additional 500 homeless vets in LA by the end of the year

What comes out is the result of years of trauma from losing friends. Johnson, who has been homeless on and off for some time, could not say how long this last stint has been.

"I don't know it's all been one long day," he said.

His days at the Veterans' Row encampment are numbered because the site has been selected for a Nov. 1 cleanup. Los Angeles County Sheriff's officials with the Homeless Outreach Services Team, or HOST, have stopped by to offer information and services.

"We have been here and conducted the encampment resolution protocol I think four or five times since COVID-19, and it was never this big," Lt. William Kitchin said.

During the latest attempt, Kitchin and the HOST team came out multiple times a week for the past month trying to get through to those veterans that have been hardest to reach.

"A lot of this is building relationships and I'm a Marine Corps, U.S. Marine Corps Veteran. Some of my HOST team members are veterans. I ask that those veterans come here to better connect with some of them," Kitchin said.

Another veteran rolling up his sleeves was Robert Reynolds. Reynolds used to be one of the homeless veterans on Vet Row, and once he got services and housing, he returned to help those soldiers who were still in tents.

However, there has been a sense of urgency lately to house vets in the last few months because multiple cars have crashed into the encampment, injuring people. In September, a veteran was stabbed to death.

"It was difficult when Andre passed away, but honestly veterans dying out here is nothing new. That's something that got me involved in this in the first place," Reynolds said.

The VA estimates there are around 4,000 homeless veterans in Los Angeles, and when they accept services and help, it can take a long time until they are housed.

"To get someone from start to finish it can take a few months to get it done, specially if they don't have any of their identification or anything. So there really needs to be a spot on the property where they can sit in the interim," Reynolds said.

On Nov. 1, when the cleanup happens, veterans will be able to place their tents on VA property for the first time without being forced into an existing program called Care, Treatment, and Rehabilitative Services, or CTRS, in exchange for moving onto the property.

"This property was intended to be a soldier's home. It should be a place where these guys can come and get refuge and not be on the street," Reynolds said.

Reynolds hopes this will help veterans slowly transition to more services and eventually housing. Although Reynolds said, the VA needs to make some important changes to solve veteran homelessness, like extending their hours of operation and re-assessing the reasons why veterans are sometimes kicked out of programs.

In a recent news conference, Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough committed to addressing veteran homelessness in Los Angeles.

"We are going to get the vets currently living on Veterans Row into housing by November. We are going to get an additional 500 homeless vets into housing by the end of this year," McDonough said.

For Reynolds, it was welcome news, but he said he is taking it with a grain of salt. After all, the VA was supposed to have opened 1,200 housing units for vets in September of last year, so far, only about 50 have been completed.

It's hardly the first time the VA has fallen through on a promise, Reynolds said. 

"The day Andre died, the directors of the VA came out here and said they were going to have tiny homes ready for the veterans within three weeks. We're now pushing five weeks and that still hasn't happened yet," he said.

What is happening is the cleanup.

Johnson breaks down in tears when asked about it. He said although he knew it would eventually come, he's worried the change could end up splintering the group and putting an end to his song.

Spectrum News reached out to the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System and asked them two specific questions about the situation. Below are their responses.

Currently, there are only three tiny shelters on the West LA campus. Why is it taking so long for the rest to be placed?

VA Greater Los Angeles (GLA) Healthcare System is currently transitioning a portion of the Care, Treatment and Rehabilitative Services (CTRS) site located on the Grand Lawn area of the West LA Campus to incorporate Tiny Shelters. The CTRS Initiative is a low-barrier-to-entry outreach initiative that provides unhoused Veteran participants a safe, clean, designated tented living area and regular access to critical medical, behavioral health, and housing services on the WLA Campus.

The transition to Tiny Shelters provides a more durable and comfortable sheltering environment for unhoused Veterans seeking medical care and an initial entry shelter option on their journey to achieving permanent supportive housing. The initial phase for the transition from tents to Tiny Shelters has been completed and GLA will continue to partner with community and municipal entities to place the remaining Tiny Shelters while ensuring we adhere to the regulations set forth.

What changes does the VA hope to see once the encampment is disbanded?

Our mission is to end Veteran homelessness through a housing-first model because we believe that no one who served our Nation should be without a home. VA Greater Los Angeles (GLA) Healthcare System is committed to fulfilling that mission through the wide variety of programs and services provided by our Community Engagement and Reintegration Services (CERS). CERS, in conjunction with our local and federal community partners, is proud to connect our Veterans to quality health care, community employment services, justice- and reentry-related services, and housing solutions that will help break the cycle of substance abuse, incarceration, and chronic homelessness. Once the encampment is disbanded, GLA will continue working diligently to offer services, build rapport and connect our unhoused and at-risk Veterans with the resources that are integral to their rehabilitation.