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Suit alleges misuse of Los Angeles VA facility

A lawsuit on behalf of homeless veterans seeks investigation of agreements that allow entities not related to veteran care to use the sprawling Westside campus.

June 09, 2011|By Martha Groves, Los Angeles Times
  • The ACLUs Mark Rosenbaum, left, with veteran Stephen E. Sherman, describes lawsuit focusing on lack of housing for veterans at the site.
The ACLUs Mark Rosenbaum, left, with veteran Stephen E. Sherman, describes… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

The Department of Veterans Affairs has misused large portions of its campus on L.A.'s Westside and has failed to provide adequate housing and treatment for homeless veterans, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday by veterans advocates and lawyers.

"In Los Angeles we have a 387-acre parcel deeded in 1888 for the specific purpose of housing a permanent home for U.S. soldiers, and it's now housing rental cars, buses, hotel laundry facilities and state-of-the-art sports facilities for a private school," said Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California in Los Angeles, which leads the coalition.

The complaint, which seeks class-action status, was filed in U.S. district court on behalf of four disabled homeless vets suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions; the Vietnam Veterans of America, a leading nonprofit organization; and a descendant ofArcadia Bandini de Baker, an original owner of the property.

Among other remedies, it calls on Washington to investigate "enhanced sharing" agreements that have allowed entities not related to veteran care to use the sprawling campus at Wilshire and San Vicente boulevards.

Those include Enterprise Rent-a-Car; Tumbleweed Transportation, a charter bus company; Sodexho Marriott, a hotel laundry facility; the UCLA baseball team; andBrentwood School, a private institution with state-of-the-art sports facilities. Such uses limit the amount of land that can be devoted to housing veterans, the lawsuit contends.

"Nobody knows how the deals were negotiated, where the money has gone," Rosenbaum said.

Named in the suit are VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki and Donna M. Beiter, director of the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System.

A spokesman for the Department of Justice said attorneys had not yet seen the complaint and therefore would have no comment.

Over the years, VA officials have said the lease agreements have raised money for veterans programs.

In 2009, Shinseki pledged to end homelessness among veterans by 2015. At the time, the VA said, there were about 131,000 homeless veterans nationwide on any given night. Today, the agency estimates that number has dropped to about 76,000, about 7,000 of them in Greater L.A., down from about 8,000 in 2009.

"Though much work remains, VA is beginning to make good on that promise," department spokesman Josh Taylor said Wednesday in a statement.

Shinseki's plan includes support services for low-income veterans and their families as well as a national referral center to link veterans to local service providers. It calls for expanded education, job programs and housing.

The 2012 federal budget proposal includes $4.9 billion for VA homelessness initiatives, up from $4.3 billion in fiscal 2011.

One of the plaintiffs cited in the suit is Greg Valentini, an Army vet who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. After being discharged, he told the ACLU, he was diagnosed with a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder that caused him to feel hyper-alert and to experience nightmares. He said he had suicidal thoughts and medicated himself with methamphetamines and became homeless.

Not far from the news conference, veterans battling addictions and mental illness were attending an on-campus fair offering food and information. Anthony Coleman, 56, a Vietnam veteran and former heroin addict who is temporarily living at the VA, complained about red tape and limits on stays.

"They could be doing more for us," he said. "The program is cool while you're in it, but you need more than 90 to 120 days to get years of homelessness out."

For about 80 years the VA campus provided shelter and services for thousands of disabled veterans. In the 1960s, it stopped accepting new residents, and structures dedicated to housing were converted, the ACLU said. New construction focused on expanding medical and short-term treatment facilities.

The VA campus has more than 100 buildings, many of which are vacant or underused. Bobby Shriver, a Santa Monica councilman who has long lobbied for converting those underused buildings into therapeutic housing for veterans, said the lawsuit follows years of failed negotiation. "We tried persuasion, we tried meetings," he said.

"We have acres and acres available," said Ronald L. Olson, an attorney working pro bono on the case. "We need to supply the kind of supportive housing that will allow [veterans] to get care."

The VA has taken some steps to improve the plight of homeless veterans. U.S. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) said in a statement that the government has committed $20 million to convert a little-used building on the campus into therapeutic housing, but construction has not yet begun.

"The Los Angeles area is home to a disproportionate share of our nation's homeless veterans, and many of these veterans have health challenges that require long-term therapeutic care," Waxman said. "I will continue to work to ensure that Congress and the VA provide therapeutic housing services to Los Angeles veterans."

martha.groves@latimes.com

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