A Devastating Fire Underscores The Crisis Of Veteran Homelessness

Manuel Bernal, president of East LA Community Corporation, stands in front of what remains of the Nuevo Amanecer complex. (Robert Garrova/LAist )

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In September, Manuel Bernal got horrible news: a fire had destroyed the nearly-finished Nuevo Amanecer apartment complex in East L.A. It would have provided desperately-needed low-income housing, including 30 units for veterans.

Bernal is president of the East LA Community Corporation, a nonprofit affordable housing developer. Standing in front of a massive pile of rubble at the intersection of 1st Street and Rowan Avenue, Bernal said work on the complex was 70% finished and move-ins were slated for the end of the year.

"Four years worth of work just burned down in a matter of hours," he said.

The tragedy underscored the challenge of finding a place to live for the area's unhoused vets. L.A. County's latest count tallied about 3,900.

That number is basically unchanged from last year, even though this population has seen bumps in federal, state and local financial support over the past 10 years. In an expensive real estate market, advocates say the money doesn't go as far, and in a city this big it's hard to reach veterans in need.

And, of course, the coronavirus pandemic has made everything worse.

There's a tremendous need for service-enriched housing for unhoused veterans, Bernal said. "It totally changes lives."

Just a five-minute drive from the burned-out complex sits the Guy Gabaldon Apartments, a project Bernal's organization did complete. It's a 32-unit complex for senior veterans.

Several residents spoke of it in glowing terms.

"It's a godsend for me," said John Wright. "I was on the street for, like, almost five years."

Another resident, James Williams, also called the Gabaldon Apartments a "godsend."

Williams joined the Marine Corps in 1979. He said he was trained as a sniper and later traveled around the country giving demonstrations on desert and jungle survival. He lived on the streets for 20 years before finding a home at the complex six years ago. The stability has given Williams time to heal, he said.

James Williams says he was homeless for two decades before he moved into the Guy Gabaldon Apartments six years ago. (Robert Garrova/LAist)

"Because being homeless, it's traumatizing, it messes you up," Williams said. "I mean, it can cause some real serious mental illness. I was suffering from mental illness when I got here."

Williams said he and his neighbors were saddened by the news of the burned down Nuevo Amanecer project, especially since they know first-hand what's at stake.

"I know veterans who have died on the streets," Williams said. "They never made it off."

The nonprofit New Directions for Veterans provides ongoing supportive services at the Gabaldon Apartments. The nonprofit's president, retired Marine Corps Capt. Leo Cuadrado, said his group operates 510 housing units, with 157 more in the pipeline.

There's been good progress in tackling veteran homelessness around the country, but L.A. "hasn't mirrored the national reductions," said Benjamin Henwood, an associate professor at USC's School of Social Work.

He said that's in part because the HUD-VA Supportive Housing vouchers that help get veterans into apartments aren't as effective in L.A.'s rental market.

"That same voucher doesn't get you as far because the rents are much higher and disproportionately out of whack," Henwood said.

The pandemic makes matters worse as it undermines the local economy.

Back at the site of the Nuevo Amanecer project, Bernal says he and his team are eager to start rebuilding the burned-down housing complex — but for now they're still dealing with matters such as insurance claims.

"It's been a difficult journey, emotionally, to rebuild," Bernal said. "But we're going to get there."

They're hoping to complete reconstruction by the end of 2021.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.