How a 9/11 firefighter’s brother helped homeless vets in L.A.

A charity founded by the older brother of a firefighter killed in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center was poised to up its game as donations soared.

Frank Siller, founder of Tunnel to Towers, decided his mission to pay the mortgages for the families of fallen first responders and build shelters for seriously injured veterans was no longer sufficient.

“We must expand our mission to eliminate homelessness among our veterans nationwide,” Siller told his board late last year.

That goal has brought the New York-based nonprofit to Los Angeles, where it is making a critical contribution to accelerating the agonizingly slow redevelopment of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ west Los Angeles campus into a community for 3,000 veterans.

An undisclosed grant from Tunnel to Towers will fill a multimillion-dollar gap in funding for construction work expected to continue over the next decade to build at least 1,700 housing units for homeless veterans.

A homeless veteran walks down a street with tents on the sidewalk.

A homeless veteran walks through a homeless camp called Veterans Row in West Los Angeles in October 2021.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

“Your contribution will hopefully accelerate the construction of these units by about a year,” said Steve Peck, executive director of US VETS, one of three developers on the team selected by the VA to build the housing and services and the Supervising management will make development a community.

The project grew out of the settlement of a lawsuit in 2015 alleging that the VA had abused the 388-acre property by leasing portions of it to non-veterans while not serving veterans.

But since its unveiling in a 2016 master plan, there has been little tangible progress. Although a tiny home village was built, allowing the VA and local authorities to relocate homeless veterans who had camped nearby on San Vicente Boulevard, it was not part of the master plan.

In November, the VA Inspector General tasked the agency with completing just one 55-unit building of the 480 targeted by the master plan’s four-year goal. Upon completion, the 28 new and rehabilitated buildings on campus will be operated by the developers under long-term leases, or “extended use” in VA terminology.

“Reasons for VA’s limited progress include required environmental impact studies, required infrastructure upgrades, the need to establish a lease for the main developer with extended use, and challenges faced by developers in securing the necessary public and private funding Bring up sources,” the Inspector General stated.

Wadsworth Chapel behind a chain link fence.

Wadsworth Chapel is being renovated and used as a psychiatric services centre.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

After the initial award of individual building leases, in 2018 the VA selected the West Los Angeles Veterans Collective to complete the remainder of the master plan, which is expected to include 1,694 residential units, a city hall, space for service providers, and the restoration of a Victorian-era chapel.

Along with US VETS, the collective consists of Century Housing, a non-profit organization that builds and finances affordable housing, and Thomas Saffran and Associates, a Brentwood-based for-profit affordable housing developer.

The first hurdle the team faced was upgrading underground utilities from the pre-war on-campus housing, which was abruptly closed after the 1971 Sylmar earthquake.

“Hundreds of millions have poured in, much of it underground,” said Laney Kapgan, US VETS vice president of development and communications. “Opening up the trunks and putting all that in is not what people care about or want to see.”

Once that was done, money remained an obstacle. Most of the projected $1.1 billion in costs will come from state and federal housing grants, tax credits and bonds. But to claim those funds, the West Los Angeles Veterans Collective must first make up the difference from private sources.

Three people are sitting on a bench in front of a white building.

Veterans David Bunche (left), Joey Meece and Jeremy Spear spend time at the historic Trolley House, which will remain as part of the new downtown area on the Veteran Affairs West LA campus.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

The three partners are working independently on individual buildings in the plan, meaning each would have had to provide this gap funding for their projects.

Tiered Tunnel to Towers, named to commemorate the fateful journey of Brooklyn Firefighter Stephen Siller, who abandoned his vehicle and ran through the blocked Brooklyn Tunnel to get to the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.

The nonprofit, founded by his older brother in 2001, grew moderately and reported just over $7 million in donations on its 2015 tax return. In 2019, donations doubled to nearly $40 million and have more than doubled in each of the subsequent two years, reaching $258 million last year.

“Our ability to do more good and expand comes from the successes we’ve had in showing Americans what Frank Siller can do,” said Brad Blakeman, a senior advisor to the organization. “He doesn’t go small-ball. He makes everything big. Our heroes deserve it.”

In its new initiative, Tunnel to Towers found an ally in Los Angeles-based US VETS, a national provider of veteran housing and services that operates 30 residential communities where veterans receive counseling, career services and case management.

Together they build shelters for veterans in Florida, Texas, Arizona and at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside.

The collaboration drew Siller’s attention to the VA’s West Los Angeles campus, a real estate gem in the heart of LA’s most expensive neighborhoods with an abridged history as the last haven for veterans of American wars. Since its donation to the US government in 1887, the campus has treated and housed veterans of the Civil War, Spanish–American War, World War I, World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam War.

After more than 1,000 residents were relocated in 1972, the Roaring 20s and Depression-era buildings were transformed into outpatient clinics, research facilities, and a home for veterans with ongoing health needs after being discharged from the VA Hospital in the south were dismissed from the campus.

However, some remained empty and fell into disrepair over the decades. Because of their historical value, the master plan envisages upgrading 14 buildings to their present state but keeping them in their original form and building another 14 from scratch.

“As we became aware of the need in Los Angeles and we became aware of this sacred ground, Frank Siller and the board said we had to be a part of it,” Blakeman said. “We have historic buildings that are being brought back to life and restored, and we will be able to accommodate many veterans in the LA area.”

A construction worker walks down a hallway in a building

A construction worker walks down a hallway in Building 207, the first project of the West Los Angeles Veterans Collective, a building for senior veterans and their families. The opening is planned for this fall.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

The model for the VA master plan stems from another thread in LA history that is little remembered outside of the small circle of veterans and housing connoisseurs.

When the Century Freeway, now Interstate 105, was built, thousands of homes were cleared along its path. A federal lawsuit against the project culminated in a 1979 settlement to establish the Century Freeway Housing Program with charges of creating 4,000 replacement homes.

With that goal achieved, the state agency was converted into a non-profit Century Housing Corp. converted, a social impact lender that has helped finance thousands of affordable housing units in California and one of the collective’s three partners.

Its flagship is Century Villages at Cabrillo, a 27-acre campus in Long Beach that has housed more than 1,500 adults — 42% of them veterans — and 400 children for the past year on a permanent, temporary, and short-term basis. Dozens of nonprofit groups, including US VETS, keep staff on site who provide health care, counseling, job training and case management.

“That’s our model for this project,” said Peck of US VETS. “We will expand this model.”

Tunnel to Towers’ donation, which will be spread over several years to ensure access to tax credits and bonds, comes as progress is finally being made on the master plan. Two other buildings, commissioned prior to the collective’s entry, are slated to open by the end of the year, adding 122 more units.

The collective’s first project, a 60-unit building for elderly veterans and their families, is slated to open this fall. Five more buildings with almost 400 more units will be built by early next year.

“We’re finally bringing veterans home,” said Kapgan of US VETS. “And this is a good time to tell the story.” How a 9/11 firefighter’s brother helped homeless vets in L.A.

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