Retired Sgt. David B. Norris, U.S. Army, hasn’t seen combat in more than 40 years, but he is still on mission.
Norris, a 32-year Tracy resident, was invited to testify before the United States Senate on Oct. 6 and delivered a plea to senators on behalf of homeless veterans.
“They helped to create the veterans. They need to take care of them,” Norris said the Friday before he was scheduled to speak to the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs.
Norris testified in favor of S2013, the Los Angeles Homeless Veterans Leasing Act of 2015. The bill is designed to govern the use of 300 acres of land owned by the Department of Veterans Affairs and adjacent to the V.A. Medical Center Los Angeles.
Norris said the land — deeded to the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, a precursor to the V.A., in 1888 — was supposed to be used in perpetuity for the benefit of American veterans.
Instead, the V.A. has leased the land to Enterprise Rent-a-Car, UCLA and others.
“Which is completely against what it was deeded for,” Norris said.
The bill would direct the V.A. to use the land for its original intent. Norris wants the government to create a place for homeless veterans in California, including those with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It’s so close to the V.A. that it makes a lot of sense to put the housing there,” he said. “The V.A. could do outpatient treatment to the homes and supervise PTSD, drug rehab, the whole thing.”
Though it would be in L.A., Norris believes it would help local veterans, as well.
“There’s people that would probably go from up here down to there,” he said.
According to statistics from the V.A., each year, between 529,000 and 840,000 veterans experience homelessness. Norris said he has seen men come home from battle to find no peace.
“When they come back, they don’t have a job,” he said. “A lot of them are turned down. After two or three turndowns, it starts working on them that, well, they look at me like I’m not trained for anything. Therefore I can’t get a job anywhere. They lose the home. They lose the car. They lose their family.”
He said the experience leaves an indelible mark.
“They just don’t trust anybody,” Norris said. “To put it bluntly, they’ve been screwed over by the government so many times, they don’t want to — 90 percent of everybody I talk to does not trust the VA. Period. Because they’ve been lied to for so many years. Because they’ve been cheated out of their benefits.”
Norris, a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and former VFW state commander, is seeing another trend that disturbs him.
“Right now, we have more female homeless people out on the streets than we ever have,” he said. “The women are especially vulnerable, because the V.A. clinics and hospitals aren’t set up for females.”
He committed five years ago to lobby on behalf of the VFW for S2013 to get vets off the streets and give them a chance at a normal life. A month ago, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein asked Norris if he would be willing to testify and forwarded his name to the committee chairman. The legislation being considered by the Senate committee could provide the $10 million over 10 years that Norris says is needed. He said that’s important to Tracy.
“There’s a lot of veterans here,” he said. “The community as a whole, I think, has embraced veterans more than a lot of other communities.”
That’s why he said he knew he could count on local residents to write letters and emails to lawmakers when the time came to pass S2013. Right now, the bill has not moved out of the committee, and there is no timeline for when that might happen.
“If we take one veteran off the street and help one veteran, it’s more than we’re doing now. We’re doing nothing,” he said.
It’s the mission Norris has committed himself to pursuing.
“If I can help the younger generation and have them eventually take over what we’re doing — war’s been going on forever. We’re not going to agree, and we’re always going to have veterans. We’ve got to have a place to take care of them.”