By Ken Olsen
Property donated in West Los Angeles on the promise it only be ysed for veterans now leased out for other purposes.
Four homeless veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress and other war-related injuries are suing the Department of Veterans Affairs, alleging it has misused land in West Los Angeles originally donated to the government specifically to provide housing for disabled veterans.
Acreage that once provided homes, food and convenient access to medical care for tens of thousands of veterans now is leased for rental car storage, a dog run and a private school’s swimming pool among other purposes, according to the class-action suit filed June 8 in federal court in California by the American Civil Liberties Union, Vietnam Veterans of America and other groups.
The suit charges that private leases violate the terms of deed that transferred the property to the federal government in 1888.
“If our nation’s laws are enforced, soldiers who risked their lives on the battlefield won’t be condemned to live in dumpsters or under freeways while land donated to house them is used instead to house a rental car company and a laundry facility for luxury hotels,” said Laurence Tribe, a Harvard law professor and former Obama administration adviser who is one of the attorneys representing the homeless veterans.
The former adjutant general of the California National Guard calls the situation tragic, especially considering that between 8,000 and 20,000 homeless veterans live in the Los Angeles area. “If anybody should have housing, it’s the veterans,” retired Maj. Gen. Paul Monroe said. “These people sacrifice for us, and we dump on them.”
The plaintiffs include three combat veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and a woman who claims to have been raped while serving in the Army in the 1970s. All need permanent, stable housing in order to receive effective treatment, the lawsuit says. It argues that VA should be ordered to resume using the West Los Angeles facilities to provide permanent housing for homeless veterans.
VA referred inquiries about the lawsuit to the U.S. Department of Justice, which declined to comment. However, exactly a week after the lawsuit was filed, VA unveiled a new master plan that proposes renovating up to three historic buildings to house homeless veterans. VA says the timing of the announcement is not related to the lawsuit.
The land in question is part of the West Los Angeles Medical Center & Community Living Center, one of three major medical complexes managed by the VA Los Angeles Health Care System. It is adjacent to Brentwood, one of the most upscale housing communities in the metropolitan area.
The 387-acre parcel is part of the land given to the federal government in 1888 by Sen. John P. Jones and Arcadia de Baker to establish a “Veteran’s National Home” to care for injured soldiers, according to Carolina Winston Barrie, great niece of de Baker. By the 1920s, the site housed veterans from the Civil War, Spanish-American War and World War I.
West Los Angeles VA’s predecessor agency stopped accepting new residents during the Vietnam War, and buildings that housed veterans were converted to other uses or abandoned. VA now leases 110 acres of the property to private companies, the UCLA baseball program, a private school and other entities.
It has never shared the details of the leases, how much revenue is generated or how VA spends the proceeds, said Larry Van Kuran, a vice commander for The American Legion’s Los Angeles County Council.
The lawsuit is accompanied by calls for Congress to investigate the Los Angeles VA’s lease deals and all property management decisions. The American Legion supports that probe.
“This is one symptom of the Greater Los Angeles VA’s questionable use of land and facilities,” Van Kuran said. “First and foremost, we want a full and fair accounting of the leases and other property management decisions and the revenue related to those decisions. VA has managed West Lost Angeles in a secretive manner, similar to Sepulveda.”
Sepulveda VA Medical Center is one of the VA’s trio of hospital complexes in the Los Angeles area. Four years ago, VA quietly leased seven acres and two outpatient buildings at Sepulveda to a private company that plans to develop a low-income apartment complex. The secret deal didn’t come to light until the developer applied for a zoning variance, even though federal law stipulates VA consult veterans groups and surrounding neighbors before signing such contracts. As troubling: VA can simply give the private company the property anytime during the 75-year lease.
Meanwhile, VA is slowly closing health-care facilities and curtailing medical services at Sepulveda and forcing hundreds of thousands of veterans to commute to West Los Angeles for care.
“There are a lot of things that raise question after question,” Van Kuran said. “We would like to see the onion peeled and full disclosure.”