A federal judge in Los Angeles ruled August 29 that the Department of Veterans Affairs has been violating federal law by leasing land on its West LA campus for a hotel laundry, movie set storage, a baseball stadium for UCLA and a dog park. The lawsuit, brought by the ACLU of Southern California and others on behalf of homeless disabled veterans, argued that the 400 acres of Veterans Administration land in Brentwood, in West LA, is supposed to be used for housing disabled veterans.
Federal Judge James S. Otero ruled that the VA is prohibited from leasing its land to private parties "totally divorced from the provision of healthcare," Mark Rosenbaum, the ACLU's chief counsel, said the ruling will return the campus to its true mission. "Those who served this nation in our time of need, now the VA is going to have to serve them in their time of need," Rosenbaum said.
Los Angeles has more homeless vets living on the streets than any other American city—6,000 on any given night, according to the most recent count. And as the war in Afghanistan winds down, more will be arriving.
The land was donated in 1888 explicitly for housing homeless vets, and for the next eighty years, tens of thousands of vets lived there, at the Pacific Branch soldiers’ home. But for the past several decades, the dormitories have been empty, and over the years the VA has leased parts of the site for other purposes. Meanwhile, homeless veterans have been sleeping on the street outside the locked gates. (Disclosure: I’m on the board of the ACLU-SC Foundation.)
Particularly in need of help are vets with severe mental disabilities and those suffering from PTSD, brain injuries and other disorders. Housing is key to treating their medical problems, and there’s a regional VA medical center across the street from the empty dorms in Brentwood. The VA, however, argues that it has no legal or other obligation to provide housing for mentally disabled vets. It has acknowledged in court that it is required to provide medical services, but it argues that it has no responsibility to provide housing, even though these vets are too disabled to get to the hospital’s outpatient clinic on their own.
Under the order, nine leases are void, including Twentieth Century Fox Television and UCLA and the private Brentwood School, which have sports facilities on VA land. The judge gave the lessees and the VA six months to terminate the leases—or appeal his decision. The ACLU is urging the VA not to appeal: "Every day an appeal is pending the VA is putting the needs of private school students and college students over our veterans," Rosenbaum said.
Meanwhile, the VA has been saying for a long time that it is going to house disabled homeless vets in Brentwood. More than five years ago, it designated three buildings for renovation. Congress appropriated $20 million for the first one in 2010, but ground was not broken until this past January, with a completion target of spring 2014. What do you get for $20 million? The VA says it will refurbish fifty-five apartments, forty-five as single rooms and ten as doubles, housing a total of sixty-five people. That’s around $300,000 per person. “That’s ridiculous,” says Robert Rosebrock of the Old Veterans Guard, which has been demonstrating every Sunday for five years outside the locked gates. “We could build a tent city and house thousands of homeless vets for that money.”