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Lawsuit Filed Against Local VA for Failure to House Homeless Vets
By Ann K. Williams
June 10, 2011 – After more than six years of political pressure on the West Los Angeles Veterans Administration (VA) facility to house disabled homeless veterans, a team of high-powered lawyers has brought suit against the agency, charging it with discrimination and violation of its founding mission.
Four veterans standing in for a much larger class of homeless servicemembers who've returned from the battlefield suffering from mental illness, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and brain injuries are among the plaintiffs in the complaint brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe, the Inner City Law Center and others, announced by the ACLU Wednesday.
“War can take a serious toll, both physical and emotional, and it is shameful when our wounded warriors return home and are left to live on our streets,” said former Adjutant General of the California National Guard, Maj. General Paul Monroe in support of the lawsuit.
“California has an incredible campus that was given to the U.S. government to permanently house our disabled vets,” Monroe said. “It’s past time we stopped renting it out to private companies and started using it to house and care for those who have sacrificed so much for our country.”
VA Press Secretary Josh Taylor responded Wednesday, saying the agency is doing its part, has a 2011 budget of $4.3 billion devoted to fighting homelessness and has played a role in reducing the total number of homeless veterans from some 131,000 two years ago to 76,000 now.
“(Veterans Affairs) Secretary Shinseki strongly believes we have a moral obligation to ensure that Veterans and their families have access to affordable housing and medical services that will help them get back on their feet,” said Taylor. “VA is dedicated to ensuring that no veteran is forced to sleep on the street.”
The lawsuit against the West Los Angeles VA alleges that instead of using its facilities to give disabled veterans the housing they need in order for their treatment to have a chance of success, the local VA rents out its facilities to private entities in violation of the conditions of the original deed that established the facility in 1888. One of the descendants of the family that donated the land to the VA, Carolina Winston Barrie, is a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
Quoting the VA's statement that the West Los Angeles campus “is perceived to be one of the most valuable parcels of real estate in the western United States,” the complaint lists private users of property that once housed veterans, including Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Sodexho Marriott, an oil well operator, and the Brentwood Private School, as well as other fee-paying entities.
Instead of profiting by leasing out its land, the VA is under an obligation to use its land to house veterans who are unable to be successfully treated if they're left on the streets, the complaint alleges.
Each plaintiff is a case study of a system gone awry, attorneys say.
A member of the initial invasions of Afghanistan at Tora Bora and Iraq at Karbala, Greg Valenti saw heavy combat, witnessed numerous deaths of fellow soldiers and of civilians and came back to the States with a severe case of PTSD.
Valenti said he was constantly “on alert,” tried to self-medicate with methamphetamine, and “spent hours thinking about where and how to kill himself,” the complaint says. Valenti has been homeless since 2006.
A Romanian with legal permanent residency, Adrien Moraru elected to serve the United States in Iraq, where he was exposed to a chemical pool without proper protection while on the road to Baghdad, an exposure he believes is the cause of boils he's suffered on his hand and in his groin since then.
“Sometimes, it seems like I survived the war and I could be shot in the back by a 9-year-old. It was almost easier during the war,” Moraru was quoted in the complaint from an interview he'd given to the media.
After destroying his mother's living room in a rage he couldn't understand himself, Moraru was sent to a mental hospital in 2006. He has been homeless off and on since then.
Jane Doe, who fears retaliation if her true name is used, was the victim of three separate rapes while serving in the military, once by a group of women, once by a man while another man looked on, and once by a group of men. She left the service in 1980, was diagnosed by the VA with PTSD secondary to military sexual trauma, and has lived on skid row and on the streets while trying unsuccessfully to get effective treatment from the VA.
After seeing one friend in Iraq get crushed by a vehicle and another burn to death, Chris Romine returned to the States with PTSD, but reenlisted. Convoy duty placed him in the position of repeatedly witnessing roadside bomb attacked on his fellow soldiers. Romine tried to self-medicate his PTSD on his return and has been living on the streets of Santa Monica and Los Angeles since then.
Plaintiffs allege that only with permanent supportive housing can they and the eight to 20 thousand homeless veterans in Los Angeles County get the care they need, care to which their attorneys say they are legally entitled.
The ACLU website has links to the complaint and a map showing the private uses on the West Los Angeles VA campus.
“War can take a serious toll, both physical and emotional, and it is shameful when our wounded warriors return home and are left to live on our streets.” Paul Monroe
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