Homeless veterans are preparing to move to VA plots in West Los Angeles

Two days before the impending move, Lavon Johnson had not yet packed.

But the war veteran in Iraq did not seem so worried as he sat at the piano he had saved from the trash can two streets away. He started playing Beethoven’s “Für Elise” along San Vicente Boulevard near Brentwood. His American flag – held up on one side by a hanger attached to his tent – waved in the wind.

Johnson planned to be the last out of the Veterans Row camp, where he has lived for about a year. His way of ensuring that the nearly two dozen remaining veterans who were not home came to safety before a planned cleanup Monday.

“It never takes me long to get ready,” the 35-year-old said with a quick smile.

The camp, adjacent to the historic Veterans Affairs campus in West Los Angeles, has become a focal point for homelessness in the city, where mayoral candidates have visited regularly over the past year. The last count of homeless people in Los Angeles County found about 3,900 homeless veterans among the county’s total of 66,000 homeless people.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough, who visited the camp in October, said last week that about 40 Veterans Row veterans would be accommodated in November.

    Emily Mohoroska, 31, stands near U.S. Army veteran Robert Reynolds, 33, and his dog Diva.

Emily Mohoroska, 31, has lived at Veterans Row since February. To the right are U.S. Army veteran Robert Reynolds, 33, and his dog Diva on Saturday.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

As early as Saturday, 14 people had moved from the sidewalk into tents on the sprawling VA campus, said Robert Reynolds, a veteran lawyer at AMVETS. Another three have signed up to enter but have not yet moved.

Reynolds credited the movement for media attention, McDonough’s visit and the two deaths linked to Veterans Row.

“It’s very frustrating that it’s taken so long,” said Reynolds, a military veteran. “This whole thing is a disservice to the veterans and a disservice to the tax-paying community because these guys are supposed to have benefits. This property is meant for them. They should be here. There’s no need for them to be anywhere on the street. . “

The only thing Johnson has known throughout his life is the military.

Johnson was born in Germany to parents in the Army and enlisted in the same department in June 2004. He was stationed in Ft. Hood and sent to Iraq in 2006 and 2007.

If you ask him when and how he came to California, he will tell you he can not remember. But he can remember what has happened since he has been here. Especially the year he has lived in the Veterans Row camp.

“It’s like I was sent here,” Johnson said, looking at the 20 remaining tents along the sidewalk.

When asked why he thought it took so long to get the veterans’ help, Johnson quickly replies, “Pride. Money. No one will admit that a mistake was made.”

Around 11 a.m., Johnson rode his bike next to the tents while sticking his head in to check in with some of the veterans. He passed more than a dozen flags and a few signs informing everyone of the planned cleanup.

For those along the line, Johnson is considered the protector. He often stays up at night to make sure everyone is safe. A reminder of the danger is scribbled in blue on a wall: RIP Andre.

This site was linked to two killings within six months this year. In April, Pedro Flores, 34, was arrested on suspicion of murder and assault with a deadly weapon after he ran over a person living in the camp, allegedly dragging the man’s body 200 meters under his vehicle. In September, the camp was the site of a stabbing that killed a male veteran without a house.

Reynolds has had more than one nightmare about veterans being killed along the street. The Iraq war veteran once slept in a sleeping bag along the street after not having access to a VA program in 2018 because of his service dog.

“I saw veterans all over the sidewalk, no outreach agents coming out, police coming through and removing them every two weeks,” the 33-year-old said. “I grew up in a big military family and was always taught to respect veterans. And so it hit the deepest chord to see this. I just could not believe I saw people who went to fight, sleep on the sidewalk and die out here . “

A sign of support for housing homeless vets.

A sign in support of housing homeless vets rests outside a tent.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Outside the tents, signs were erected about the situation of the homeless veterans: “We fought for you, please fight for us.” Black storage buckets were placed outside tents with a sheet to document furniture for the move.

Reynolds has helped set up 20 tents on the VA campus, including new cribs, blankets and towels for those moving in from Veterans Row. A U-Haul arrives Monday to help load everyone’s belongings to place them in storage if needed.

Ronald Estrada-Ortiz, a Marine Corps veteran, was moved into the VA campus two days ago. He could take clothes and two backpacks with him.

Estrada-Ortiz volunteered when he was 18 – he graduated from high school on a Wednesday and was a Marine that Friday – motivated by the events of 9/11.

“I bleed red, white and blue,” he said. “I love this country.”

A homeless veteran sits outside his tent.

A homeless veteran sits outside his tent along Veterans Row.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

But he expressed frustration over the time it took for veterans to get help, calling it “a money problem.” He also questioned misconceptions that members of society may have about the outbuildings.

“We just got the wrong hand,” the 35-year-old said.

When asked when he should move, Johnson said he whistles it. He does not like to make plans anymore.

“Everyone wants me in there,” he said from his seat at the piano. He doesn’t really want to move, but he would go anyway because, as he jokes, “these guys can’t take care of themselves.”

He only plans to take the “necessary” with him. That includes the piano he rescued six months ago.

He points to an information booth on the VA campus. His piano is new home.

    U.S. Army veteran David Lawrence Echavarria, 60, is zipping up one of many tents.

US Army Veteran David Lawrence Echavarria, 60, is zipping up one of many tents on the VA campus that will house homeless veterinarians currently living on Veterans Row.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

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