Shortly after the pandemic began, a line of large tents, each adorned with an American flag, sprung up outside the Veterans Affairs campus in Brentwood. Home to approximately 40 people who had fought in the Iraq, Vietnam and Gulf wars, it became known as Veterans Row. It endured until late 2021 when a visit by Joe Biden’s Secretary for Veterans Affairs kick-started the effort to get the people living there into housing.
Many stories about Veterans Row appeared, but no reporter spent as much time there as Anna Scott, who covers housing and homelessness for public radio station KCRW (89.9 FM). She has been working for nearly two years on a podcast about Veterans Row. The first two episodes of City of Tents (with executive producer Sonya Geis) dropped on Wednesday. New installments will roll for the next six weeks. (Full disclosure: Scott and I formerly worked together at Los Angeles Downtown News).
It’s a follow-up of sorts for Scott, who in the summer of 2020 unveiled Samaritans, a standout four-part podcast chronicling the lengthy, frustrating effort to get a Mid-City woman named Christine off the streets and into housing. The two remain in touch. “She’s doing great,” said Scott. “We get breakfast at Astro Burger regularly.”
LAMag spoke with Scott about Veterans Row, and the challenges and surprises that reporting on it presented. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
LAMag: How did Samaritans prepare you for City of Tents?
Anna Scott: That one was very much focused on Christine and her experience, and it was a very personal story. We got into some bigger-picture policy questions and I think gave people a look at some of the disorganization and the holes in how services are brought to people on the streets in Los Angeles.
It prepared me really well for reporting this series, which is a lot more complicated and is a lot more about policy, which is not to say it’s boring. It’s a very wild ride. There are plenty of interesting people in it.
In the trailer for the series you say, “Even in a city full of tents, this stood out.” What was unique here?
This camp looked like no other. It was impossible to miss. This looked like the master-planned community of encampments of Los Angeles. It was a long row of matching tents with identical American flags on the front. If you were driving by, you could easily mistake this for some kind of government-run, emergency shelter program. Especially because it popped up during COVID.
But it definitely was not that.
That it was all military veterans living there was a total game changer. It changed all the dynamics of this camp and all of the normal politics we are used to in L.A. around homelessness.
How did your reporting evolve into City of Tents?
It began as a one-off story. It was really just meant to answer the question of what the hell is up with the gigantic camp with the American flags outside the VA? I did that story in September 2020. Some months later, in spring 2021, my bosses asked me if I’d come across any stories that might be worthy of another podcast series like Samaritans. That’s what came to mind.
So you thought this could be a pod. But you didn’t know where it would go.
Exactly. But I was intrigued by the fact that it was all veterans and the relationship between the camp and the VA campus next door, and how unique the crowd there was.
I’ve been covering this for a while. I know this is an issue people get fatigued by. But I’m always looking for ways to surprise people, and I saw a real opportunity there, that this could be a very different-sounding story. I have learned over the years that if you plant yourself in one place long enough, shit will happen. And it sure did. Way beyond what I expected.
So there were turns you were not anticipating?
Oh yeah. This took some real crazy turns. First of all, once I started hanging out there a lot and getting a sense of everyday life, I was stunned by the crowds this place drew. It had its own hashtag, #VeteransRow. There were people throwing political rallies and barbecues there. It was this attraction in a way that I personally have not seen at any other encampment. There were days I was there thinking, I can’t believe I’m the only reporter here. It was like Heavy Metal Parking Lot vibes.
Besides that, a lot of dramatic things happened during the course of my reporting. There were two murders, which are covered in this series. Eventually, Joe Biden dispatched his VA Secretary, Denis McDonough, to visit the camp. I have never seen a top federal official swoop into an encampment in Los Angeles before and promise solutions.
You’ve referenced politics a couple of times, and the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles is political on many levels. What made the politics here unique?
It was all veterans, and they are one of the very few groups, maybe along with children, who Americans by and large believe should never have to live on the streets and deserve something back from government.
That changes everything about what’s possible with the situation. One of the reasons I was attracted to this is because we have actually made, over the last 15 years or so, pretty good progress in this country on ending veteran homelessness. Between 2010 and 2016 it went down by more than 50%. But we haven’t quite gotten there fully.
So this encampment was kind of a case study in the ways that we’re still falling short and who is slipping through the cracks and why.
You close the trailer by saying, “We could actually solve homelessness in America if we really wanted to.” That’s a lofty assertion.
I don’t want to minimize how hard it is. But I stand by that statement and I think we deliver on it in the series.
It would be difficult to do for everybody what we do for veterans because it frankly isn’t politically popular to do that and would cost a lot of money. But we can take lessons from the progress made on veterans’ homelessness and try to apply those lessons more broadly.
Any surprising elements as you walk away from this series?
I hope that people are surprised to learn about this world that existed for so long right under our noses, that was a very strange parallel universe.
I hope people come away feeling a sense of possibility that maybe we’re not going to fix this really quickly, but we could make it a lot better a lot more quickly than we think we can.
The first two episodes of City of Tents are now available on podcast platforms and at kcrw.com.
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