By: Andrea Dickerson
During an April 10 town hall meeting hosted by the Department of Veteran Affairs at Bob Hope Patriotic Hall in Los Angeles, local veterans and community members aired their concerns regarding homeless veteran issues plaguing the VA West Los Angeles Medical Center.
The VA sent multiple officials to sit on a panel and address veterans in attendance and hear their concerns. Panel members included subject matter experts and Stephen Peck, president of U.S. VETS.
Although veterans there conveyed various messages to the VA representatives, one thing resonated loud and clear – a sense of urgency in holding the VA accountable for the welfare of veterans and a commitment from the VA to make things right.
“As we have people stepping up, we need to hold them accountable,” one attendee said. “These people are saying they are going to step up, and we need to hold them accountable. We need there to be transparency so we know what is going on, but we need to hold them accountable for what they say they are going to do.”
Vincent Kane, director of VA’s National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans and special assistant to Secretary Robert McDonald, relayed messages from the secretary assuring the crowd that their concerns are being heard and changes will continue to be implemented. “It almost sounds very good, but trust having been violated, you kind of take that tongue and cheek,” said Francisco Juarez, a chairperson with the California VA Land-use Committee, and member of several veterans service and advocacy organizations.
Kane and others unveiled elaborate plans to transform the West Los Angeles campus and give veterans back a sense of ownership over the land. “I heard it’s about time from a Marine Corps veteran wearing a cap that says Khe Sahn 1967, and that put everything into perspective,” Juarez said.
Kane also expressed an obligation to due diligence and transparency within the organization. However, he and other VA officials failed to provide answers regarding accounting of funds collected from commercial tenants of the West Los Angeles VA when the organization violated land-use agreements. Kent often circled back to a remark he made, “What we should be working on, together, is transforming the VA.” He went on to say that future efforts should focus on meeting not only veterans healthcare needs, but their housing, social, vocational, recreational and spiritual needs.
“What struck me is that the campus was always meant to be a home – we need to go back to that. This campus needs to feel like a home,” Kane said.
Originally intended to serve as a home for disabled veterans, the West LA campus has leased its land to several private businesses while turning away veterans in need. The American Legion has protested this misuse of VA property since the 1980s.The Government Accountability Office (GAO) also released a statement in August of 2104 detailing discrepancies they found during a review of VA facilities, to include West Los Angeles. GAO found weaknesses in billing and collection processes for land-use agreements as a result of ineffective monitoring. The review uncovered that the West Los Angeles VA waived revenue in an agreement with a nonprofit organization—$250,000 in fiscal year 2012 alone—due to financial hardship. VA policy does not allow revenues to be waived.
To date, the money collected in exchange for use of campus assets has not been accounted for. During her testimony in front of a subcommittee of the House Veterans Affairs’ Committee, Skye McDougall, the acting network director of the Veterans Integrated Service Network blamed the accounting oversight on Ralph Tillman, a former asset manager at the VA. She also alleged he permitted private entities to occupy VA land with no lease or a requirement to fulfill any monetary obligations for using the space.
Audience members reminded the panel of the original land-use agreement. Juarez said this has been an ongoing concern raised recently among the service and advocacy organizations. “There is only one master plan,” he countered. “That is the deed of the 1800s. Once you make a promise, you don’t break a promise. Once you make a master plan, you don’t break that master plan. So let’s call this a settlement plan.”
Concerned citizens and veterans were not alone in their pleas for execution of promises. The American Legion called for action, urging the VA to release a report itemizing where funds collected in exchange for use of VA land were allocated.
When asked about the funds – how much money has been collected and how the money benefits veterans – the VA representatives echoed the same words, “I will have to get back to you.”
The American Legion welcomes future opportunities for open dialogue with the VA discussing the “master plan” and other issues at the West LA VA campus.