How one program gives federal property to groups helping the homeless

Capital & Main
By Charles Davis

September 6, 2017

Hundreds of thousands of people sleep every night on the streets of the United States, where just about every major city is experiencing an affordable housing crisis. While no federal program offers completely free housing for the homeless, a little-noticed statute is allowing those who help this population to obtain federal property at no cost, turning abandoned buildings and lots into hubs for social services.

“This building is always busy,” said Veronica Lara, chief operating officer for Volunteers of America Los Angeles.

Her organization’s offices are located in the overwhelmingly Latino neighborhood of Boyle Heights, where the Los Angeles City Council blocked a plan in August to build new housing for the mentally ill and homeless. There’s an obvious need — Los Angeles County’s homeless population soared 23 percent from January 2016 to January 2017 — but efforts to provide housing and services for this community are always controversial, spurring concern not for human life, at least not in one’s backyard, but for property values that might decline.

The Volunteers of America building began life housing staff for the Social Security Administration. But now it provides air-conditioned space for homeless teenagers — a couch, a TV and a set of computers they can use for free— and the caseworkers who help between 500 and 1,000 homeless veterans every month find employment, housing and public assistance on Los Angeles’ Eastside.

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