West LA VA Welcome Center: The First Step in the Journey Out of Homelessness
For Veterans transitioning out of homelessness, the journey can be long and beset by obstacles that can discourage even the most determined.
Focusing on each step and not the destination is critical to gaining and maintaining momentum, and the first step often takes place at West LA VA’s Community Resource and Referral Center, or more commonly referred to as the Welcome Center.
Located on the first floor of Building 257 on the northside of the campus, the Welcome Center is a safe space for Veterans to receive care from the VA, connect with support staff, access services offered by VA and its community partners, and start the rebuilding process.
“This is a door opening,” said Terri Smith, a supervisor at the Welcome Center with experience as a social worker helping the underserved. “We want to give [Veterans] hope and let them know they’re not alone. They have options.”
Smith exudes positivity as she bounces around the Welcome Center, explaining the intake process while showering praise on her staff, who bring a wealth of knowledge and experience from various fields. The work of the Welcome Center demands this diversity, as staff must address a wide range of issues given that no Veteran’s situation is exactly the same.
“We receive many different inquiries and requests,” Smith said. “But our main purpose is to get Veterans housed.”
When a Veteran walks into the Welcome Center, often with empty stomachs and exhausted from days, weeks or even years of surviving on the streets, they are provided with a meal and are greeted by a receptionist who patiently prompts them to provide their name, date of birth and any identification they have so that their Veteran status can be confirmed. It’s rare that a Veteran experiencing homelessness has their DD214 paperwork, which they receive upon leaving the military and details their service history, including their discharge status.
The Welcome Center employs an eligibility specialist to help Veterans request their documentation and enroll them in the healthcare system so they can access treatment. Veteran status can be processed within an hour.
Once their Veteran status is confirmed (some Veterans have never accessed services from VA prior to visiting the Welcome Center), they’re taken to the nursing station for a basic healthcare screening. If they need immediate care, they are offered transportation to the Medical Center on the southside of the campus. If they do not have any urgent or emergent healthcare needs, they are then introduced to a peer support specialist for an initial interview.
Ed Moro (U.S. Army, 1999-2003) is one of those specialists, a Veteran who struggled with a return to civilian life and can relate to those Veterans who are hurting emotionally. Moro helped build the Welcome Center, nurturing its growth much as he does with each Veteran he counsels. He does his best to connect with those experiencing homelessness by re-telling his story of struggling with PTSD, depression, and substance abuse.
“Sometimes Veterans, and this is particularly true of Vietnam era Veterans, are in the dark about VA services,” Moro said. “I’m here to build rapport with them, to build trust.”
Moro shares how the housing process works and lays out a general plan for a Veteran’s transition out of homelessness. Change can take time, so Moro keeps in contact with the Veterans he meets so that he can be a resource and encourage them along the way.
In his office Moro has keepsakes from Veterans he’s worked with, including a wind chime and a polished stone intended to help with meditation.
“This recovery thing, it’s not an easy process,” Moro said. “But I really feel blessed to be here. I love working as part of a team and helping my Veterans. I feel that I’ve really found my purpose.”
With a better understanding of a Veteran’s needs, Moro escorts them to a social worker with knowledge of the varied housing programs available on campus or in the community. The Veteran receives the most appropriate housing referral based on their situation, including Veterans Affairs Support Housing (HUD-VASH), Support Services for Veteran Families (SSVF), Safe Parking or a transitional housing program.
While they’re waiting for admission to transitional housing Veterans can speak with volunteers from local nonprofits that provide legal services, job training, life skills development, and education, treatment for addiction or depression.
Jaime Greene (U.S. Army, 2011-2015) is with Volunteers of America-Los Angeles (VOA), and while his main role is to help Veterans secure employment, he also stands in as a guide to VA programs and services. He is stationed at the Welcome Center at least two days a week and is always available by phone.
VOA is a federal grant recipient in the Homeless Veterans’ Reintegration Program, or HVRP, an employment focused competitive grant program of the Department of Labor, Veterans’ Employment and Training Service. HVRP has two core objectives which are to provide services to assist in reintegrating homeless Veterans into meaningful employment within the labor force and to stimulate the development of effective service delivery systems that will address the complex problems facing homeless Veterans.
“When I got out of the Army, I didn’t know who to speak to [at VA]. I just kind of had to wing it on my own,” Greene said. “We have Veterans who are discharged with little money in their pocket and are lost. They don’t know what to do now. We want to help them develop a plan of action. The last thing you want to do is get out of the Military with no plan.”
In addition to supportive services, the Welcome Center offers Veterans access to showers and laundry, and field calls from the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans – 877-424-3838. VA also accepts donations from the public, including blankets, clothing, food, and water.
In 2022 there were more than 3,100 Veteran visits to the center, with nearly 1,600 housing assists. More than 1,200 showers/laundry services were provided, and more than 5,000 meals were handed out.
“The hardest is when you see people who have never been homeless before, Veterans with children who are crying and so unsure of what they are going to do next,” Smith said. “They’re totally lost. They’re just exhausted. When we can find them a place to stay, that’s what keeps us going.”
“Housing is the most essential part of life. If you don’t have a place to rest your head, you really can’t do much of anything in life.”
West LA VA’s Community Resource and Referral Center, or more commonly referred to as the Welcome Center, is in Building 257 on the West LA VA campus and can be reached at 310-268-3269, Monday – Friday, 7:30 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.