Los Angeles has more homeless people than any other city in the nation, and among them, more homeless veterans — an estimated 7,000 on any given day. The city also has a sprawling Department of Veterans Affairs treatment facility for former servicemen and women, located on a 387-acre compound in West Los Angeles. Now, the American Civil Liberties Union has gone to court to force the VA to put more of that acreage to use for homeless veterans.
In a class-action lawsuit filed Wednesday on behalf of four homeless veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other ailments, the ACLU claims that the department is violating the property's deed by not providing the combination of housing and treatment that battle-scarred vets need. The lawsuit is just the latest attempt by advocates for homeless vets to light a fire under the federal government. Given the glacial pace of the VA's response over the years, the added heat is welcome.
Veterans are 50% more likely to become homeless than the average American, and homeless vets account for nearly 20% of the people living on the streets and in shelters in L.A. John P. Jones, one of the founders of Santa Monica, and Arcadia B. de Baker would probably be dumbfounded and mortified by those statistics. The pair donated the land to the federal government in 1888 to be the site for the Pacific Branch Soldier's Home for disabled vets, and tens of thousands of them were housed there over the next 80 years. In the 1960s, however, the federal government started phasing out the housing on the site; now the only long-term housing there is in a nursing home.
The ACLU's lawsuit targets two outrages. One is that about a third of the VA's West Los Angeles acreage is being leased to a car rental company, a private school, a hotel laundry service and other groups with no connection to veterans. The VA contends that these leases raise money to support its programs, but it has kept the financial details secret. The ACLU's lawsuit demands an accounting, a reasonable request to which the government should agree.
The second is that the elimination of long-term housing on the site has prevented the most severely disabled homeless veterans from being treated effectively. The ACLU contends that the VA is refusing to make the "reasonable accommodations" that federal law requires, and seeks an injunction forcing the VA to provide permanent supportive housing for those veterans.
The VA and its allies say they're making slow but measurable progress toward eliminating homelessness among veterans by 2014. Some homeless advocates also say the department now recognizes the importance of providing housing and services in combination for the most severely disabled vets. Still, the Los Angeles VA's most touted supportive housing program is a collaborative effort aimed at the city's 60 most vulnerable homeless vets, a tiny fraction of the total.
The VA can't give all the homeless veterans a place to stay on the West L.A. campus. But it can certainly do more. We hope the lawsuit will prompt the VA to bring the sense of urgency to the problem that the government owes to its wounded warriors.