Horrifyingly, this is not a new experience for the residents of Veteran’s Row at the West LA VA Campus.
In the early hours of March 4, a Lincoln MKC sedan crashed into Veteran’s Row, an unhoused encampment outside the West Los Angeles Veteran’s Affairs campus, nearly killing four-year resident and veteran Ryan Higgins. Witnesses say the driver seemed intoxicated following the crash. Shortly after, the driver was picked up by friends and went home. Welcome back to Brentwood.
“I had just gone to bed,” Higgins told me from Veteran’s Row Thursday evening. “The next thing I knew, something had hit me in the face and I groggily got up. People were rushing toward me and asking me ‘Are you okay?,’ and I looked and saw the car.”
The black Lincoln slammed a VA barrier and destroyed Higgins’ tent, visible in aftermath footage from streamer JACOB ZONE TV and others at the scene. Because of the angle of impact, Higgins was sleeping directly underneath the car, inches from being struck himself.
“Everything was destroyed,” Higgins said.
“It was pretty terrible,” said Gabe Phillips, a relative of a Veteran’s Row resident who witnessed the collision in the early Thursday hours. “The first time I heard her scream was when she first hit the curb as the car was teeter-tottering. [After], I was on the outside of the gate trying to help the veterans that were here, and she was on the VA campus side.”
Forrest Celestine, an Army-Navy veteran who has lived on Veteran’s Row for nine years, witnessed the immediate aftermath of the collision, as well. According to Celestine, the driver was initially rescued and pulled from the Lincoln by himself and other Veteran’s Row residents.
“We quickly got [Ryan Higgins] out, and as we were pulling him out, I was searching for the driver,” Celestine said. “I went under the debris and following the sound, and she was listening to me as I started comforting her in the car. I followed it to the back of the car and we all started to pull her out through the back door.”
After being rescued by Veteran’s Row residents, the driver reportedly spoke with both the VA police force and the LAPD.
“She was very concerned if she hit somebody,” Celestine told KNOCK.LA.
Two other residents reportedly sustained minor injuries and were examined by on-site medics, but none were taken to the hospital. Higgins says the driver was picked up by friends in a separate vehicle, after Phillips witnessed her speaking with LAPD officers.
According to CBS Los Angeles, an LAPD spokesperson on the scene did “not believe alcohol was a factor in the crash, but speed may have been.” While the spokesperson readily acknowledged the driver was speeding illegally, witnesses indicate the police were on site when the driver left the scene.
Phillips disagrees with the LAPD spokesperson on the driver’s alcohol intake. “In my opinion, nobody’s gonna hit a turn like that unless they’re a little intoxicated. She was going way too fast. I did see her at one time sitting out with the VA police saying, ‘Why are you — what happened? I don’t know what happened.’”
While Phillips did not witness the driver leave the scene, he remained firm on this point. “She seemed pretty drunk. It seemed like alcohol was involved.”
For the approximately 40 veterans living at the Veteran’s Row encampment, who live directly outside the VA but are routinely refused service, seeing the driver walk away was frustrating, but not surprising.
In fact, this was not even Higgins’ first time nearly being killed by a vehicle while living on Veteran’s Row. He told KNOCK.LA he had been struck by a vehicle two years ago, spent time in the hospital and experienced brain bleeding, but the driver was never investigated. Celestine describes an incident from the winter of 2020 where another driver totaled his car on the same corner of the encampment, with no police action taken. While this week’s crash was more dangerous than previous incidents, residents made it clear that police inaction when Veteran’s Row and their residents are hit by vehicles is nothing new.
“When you hear that sound, everybody knows what it is,” Celestine said.
This is a distinct trend in unhoused populations across the country — police forces have a traceable history of failing to investigate instances of unhoused people struck by vehicles. For those on Veteran’s Row, this injustice is compounded by frustrations with the West LA VA, whose nearly 400-acre campus exists on the other side of the concrete wall struck by the Lincoln MKC on Thursday.
“This is our land and they’re doing… whatever the hell it is they’re doing in there,” Higgins said of the VA. The encampment exists in large part due to unhoused and often disabled veterans being refused consistent service at the campus (which, again, is directly next to the San Vincente encampment). In the last several weeks, the VA has brokered an expansion on their multi-million dollar land deal with UCLA, while 40 veterans continue to sleep outside their walls.
The central, almost rhetorical question remains: if the LAPD acknowledged that the driver was speeding at the time of a collision that nearly killed another person and injured others, why were they permitted to leave the scene? This speaks to a larger policing issue.
In Los Angeles, the police themselves are some of the principal antagonizers of the unhoused population, with reports of the LAPD brutalizing and incarcerating the unhoused community at steadily increasing and disproportionate rates. As of 2019, 34% of instances of use of force reported by the LAPD were against the unhoused.
“It’s total disrespect that we have to go through this,” Celestine said. “It’s total disrespect that we’re looked down upon, and it’s heartbreaking. We have to put our lives at risk again to get what we deserve.”
Higgins is recovering on Veteran’s Row, where his tent and possessions are now completely destroyed. The next days will consist of sleeping on the concrete and rebuilding what he, the injured, and his neighbor lost, while the VA looms behind them.
“I love the people and I love this country,” Higgins said. “And, you know, where are they?”