In the first program of its kind in the nation, the West Los Angeles VA has opened its campus to veterans who sleep in their cars. Officials say it's a less-than-ideal starting point to help homeless vets.
For a little under a year, Army veteran Adam John Halvorsen and his girlfriend, Angela Del Castillo, have been living in her minivan on the streets of Southern California. The vehicle is crammed with all the clothes and personal items the couple needs, alongside space to stretch out and sleep.
But from the outside, the white Toyota doesn't stand out in the rush of Los Angeles traffic.
"We know how to blend in," Halvorsen said. "Just don't look homeless, you know?"
Cars, vans, and campers serve as home to more than 8,500 people in Los Angeles County.
The city recently cracked down on people living in cars, making it illegal to sleep in vehicles overnight in residential areas. Therefore, the couple drives around constantly to avoid citations, safety risks, and scrutiny from neighbors. The anxiety has taken its toll.
"You can't fall all the way asleep, because if someone comes, you're not supposed to be where you are," Del Castillo said, fighting back tears. "The words are hard to find, because it's so hard. People don't understand."
"They've given us a bathroom, which is so awesome."
Halvorsen was a combat engineer in the Army in the 1990s. He spent some time in prison after his service, but he is eligible for VA benefits, which allow him to join a new pilot program on the West Los Angeles VA campus.
The VA Medical Center is now allowing veterans to park overnight on its campus and sleep in their vehicles. It's the first VA program of its kind in the nation.
Last month, a non-profit group called Safe Parking L.A. partnered with the Department of Veterans Affairs to offer 10 parking stalls for vets to spend the night in their cars. The number could expand if there's enough demand.
A security guard and a portable bathroom with a handwashing station are available on site from 8:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m., seven days a week.
The amenities are far from lavish. But the first participants said the safe parking program makes a big difference because it relieves some of the stress of a night in the car.
"You don't have that anxiety of someone's going to knock on the window and say you've got to leave, or you're in trouble or anything," Del Castillo said. "They've given up a bathroom, which is so awesome."
The veterans staying in the designated lot must fill out applications and are screened by the VA or Safe Parking L.A. No weapons, drugs or alcohol are allowed. The group reserves the right to evict anyone who doesn't follow the rules.
The organization also runs vets' names through a sex offender database, but it doesn't require a full criminal background check, according to Executive Director Scott Sale.
"These are solid citizens who are down on their luck and have lost their ability to afford rent," Sale said. "I would like all members of every city council district to be kinder to their neighbors who have to live in their cars."
The program's security guards will work alongside the VA Police Department that already patrols the campus. Along with the restroom, there's a picnic area to eat meals. No food service is planned, but the non-profit group Village for Vets had teamed up with Meals on Wheels to bring brown bags of nighttime snacks and breakfast food to the car campers.
Long promised: permanent housing
The population of homeless veterans in the U.S. ticked up slightly last year, after falling steadily since 2010. In Los Angeles County, where the numbers jumped dramatically, there's a growing urgency from officials to get veterans off the street.
The VA says its goal with the safe parking program is to keep homeless vets safe while also helping them connect with services and eventually get settled in permanent housing.
"How can we possibly expect folks who are living out of their cars to want to engage in services and to want permanent housing, when they don't even know where they're going to lay their head at night?" asked Heidi Marston, Director of Community Engagement for the West Los Angeles VA. "This just takes one piece out of that very complicated puzzle for them."
The safe parking vets will be encouraged to access medical services on the VA campus, as well as connect with social and mental health services through a VA welcome center.
VA officials say they know the parking lot is a less than ideal solution. But in a county with about 4,800 homeless veterans in the last official count, it meets an immediate need.
Permanent housing will take longer.
The VA has been ordered to build homes on its West Los Angeles campus as part of a 2015 legal settlement in a lawsuit by disabled and homeless vets.
The agency is working on a massive housing effort on the 388 acre campus, which was originally gifted to the federal government to be a home for aging and disabled veterans. Under the terms of the settlement, the agency must find a way to build 1,200 units of permanent housing for veterans on the land.
So far, it has opened just 54 apartments, with plans to renovate two more buildings -- adding 110 dwellings -- by early 2020.
"So the conversation was really what can we do to address the needs of our veterans right now, until the housing gets built," Marston said.
The demand for a secure and legal place to park cars and sleep overnight is visible everywhere in Los Angeles. Even before the safe parking program was hatched, the West Los Angeles VA campus had become a popular spot for people living in their vehicles.
On a recent visit, more than a dozen RVs were scattered in several parking lots. Marston isn't sure if the people living in them are veterans or other homeless Southern Californians taking shelter from stricter parking laws. She also has no way to confirm whether they're getting medical and mental health care.
"So it's great to park in your car or your camper up on the North campus somewhere, but if you're never leaving it and you're never engaging, we can't help you," she said.
Back in his van, Adam Halvorsen says things are looking up. He's got a job interview lined up and a government voucher in hand to help him pay rent. He and his girlfriend are looking for an apartment, hopeful that they won't be living much longer in a VA parking lot.
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 and the Bob Woodruff Foundation.