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Elected Officials React to ACLU Complaint Against VA  

By Ann K. Williams
Lookout Staff

June 15, 2011 – Less than a week after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) announced it filed a complaint against the Veterans Administration (VA) for failing to house homeless veterans at its West Los Angeles campus, federal elected officials and the VA have responded with press releases and a letter claiming they're on top of the controversy.

While the VA and legislators in Washington have declined to issue statements referring directly to the lawsuit, two press releases and a letter signed by Senator Dianne Feinstein and Representative Henry Waxman released after the ACLU announced its complaint Wednesday tout their actions on behalf of homeless veterans in Los Angeles.

Their responses are not enough, said Santa Monica Council member Bobby Shriver, acknowledged to be the driving force behind the ACLU's lawsuit on behalf of homeless veterans suffering from mental illness brought on by the rigors of wartime service.

Shriver has worked for more than half a dozen years pressuring the WLA VA to build supportive housing on its campus, an effort that seemed to have borne fruit last June when $20 million was set aside in the federal budget to build the housing. But now – thanks to the vagaries of Washington politics – the project is in jeopardy.

“It's time to write a check,” Shriver told The Lookout Monday. “It's time for Waxman and Feinstein to ask the President to issue an executive order because it's an emergency.

“The time for press releases is over, the time for cash is now,” he said.

In response to the Lookout's request for Feinstein's reaction to the lawsuit, the Senator's press office emailed a letter dated Thursday, the day after the ACLU announcement.

The letter – co-signed by Waxman – to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and Jack Lew, the Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), claims that the legislators have been working “to provide housing for homeless veterans on the West Los Angeles campus for four years.”

The housing – and the $20 million it will cost to build it – is part of the 2012 budget, they said, and they asked for the OMB to “finalize the Department's request to Congress for construction projects,” an action they say is needed before congress can see the project through.

The 2012 budget is far from a done deal, however, and when the Lookout called Feinstein's press office to find out what “finalize the the Department's request” means, the paper was redirected to the OMB after being told that Feinstein's office didn't want to go on the record with an explanation of the language.

Press staff in the OMB were puzzled, and asked why they were being asked for an explanation of language in a letter that Feinstein sent to them.

Calls made Friday and Tuesday to Waxman's office for his response to the ACLU lawsuit went unanswered, as was a request for an explanation of the “finalize the Department's request” language.

Like the legislators' letter, the VA's press releases – dated the same day as the ACLU announcement – don't refer to the ACLU lawsuit, but they do go on at some length about the VA's efforts to end homelessness among veterans.

One press release describes the Building Utilization Review and Repurposing (BURR) Initiative which VA officials say will increase its transitional beds by 5,000.

“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,” Shinseki was quoted in the release.

But BURR supportive housing, which will be built at 23 sites including Long Beach, will not be built at the VA's WLA campus.

In another press release of the same date, VA Press Secretary Josh Taylor said that the department is making good on Shinseki's promise to end veteran homelessness by 2015, and has asked for $4.9 billion to do just that in the 2012 budget.

Like Shriver, Los Angeles City Council member Bill Rosendahl – a Vietnam era veteran – is frustrated by Washington's lack of action.

Rosendahl has travelled to the Capitol with Shriver, trying to get a commitment to build supportive housing at the VA WLA campus for the seven to nine thousand mentally ill veterans living on the street of Los Angeles.

“Why they allowed these buildings to become vacant...that to me is the disgrace,” Rosendahl told the Lookout Friday.

The buildings that once housed veterans on the WLA campus were emptied decades ago, he said, and today the VA leases the property on which the dilapidated buildings stand to private entities, although the land was originally given to the VA with the mandate that it be used for a soldiers' home.

“The federal government's commitment to returnees is not adequate,” said Rosendahl. “This is a federal issue.”

Rosendahl contrasted the lack of federal support with the support of World War II vets at Veteran's Post 283 in the Pacific Palisades, to which he belongs. They donated $2,150,000 to build Fisher House, a facility in Brentwood that houses the families of veterans receiving care at the WLA VA hospital.

“I think it's a crime,” he said of federal inaction. “Washington has a responsibility, the President has a responsibility.”

With servicemen and women now serving two, three, four, even five tours of duty, only one per cent of America's families are directly affected by today's wars, Rosendahl pointed out, implying that national politicians are less motivated to act decisively on behalf of the nation's wounded veterans now than during wars past.

And Santa Monica Mayor Richard Bloom – who has worked to bring homeless services under a regional umbrella – told the Lookout “I don't think that there's any question but that the VA can do a better job and needs to step up its act caring for homeless veterans.”

“I commend Council member Shriver for his many years of effort,” Bloom added, “and I expect that we'll see his efforts bear fruit in coming years with improved services to homeless veterans.”

 

“It's time to write a check.” Bobby Shriver

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