Santa Monica Lookout
Federal Court Rules West L.A. VA Land Must Be Used for Medical, Veteran Support Services
By Jason Islas
August 30, 2013 -- Advocates for housing homeless vets won a major victory Thursday after a Federal judge ruled the West Los Angeles Veterans' Administration (VA) had illegally leased nearly a quarter of its 387-acre campus.
Those leases were in violation of Federal law because they did nothing to provide medical support or other services to veterans, ruled U.S. District Court Judge Samuel James Otero, more than two years after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed the suit against the VA alleging misuse of the property. (“Lawsuit Filed Against Local VA for Failure to House Homeless Vets,” June 10, 2011)
“I think it's great because the vets have finally won one against the administration,” said former Santa Monica City Councilmember Bobby Shriver, a long-time activist for homeless vets.
VA officials claimed that it leased the land -- roughly a mile from Santa Monica's eastern border -- to help generate revenue for services to vets, a claim critics say has never been substantiated by paperwork.
Among the nine leases listed in court documents were included agreements with Twentieth Century Fox, Brentwood Schools, Sodexho Marriot Laundry Services and UCLA which leased land for its baseball team to use for practice.
For those who have been fighting the VA, those leases were in the way of putting potential housing projects where they are needed most.
“The only approach that works for people who are homeless because they have severe disabilities is guaranteed access to housing linked to services,” said David Sapp, an attorney with the ACLU.
“Without stability of housing, it's not possible for them to access services,” he said.
Many of Los Angeles' homeless vet population -- the largest in the nation -- suffer from debilitating combat-related mental illnesses, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
For Shriver and other advocates for homeless vets, Thursday's victory was only a partial one.
“Senator (Diane) Feinstein and Congressman (Henry) Waxman should immediately press the VA to do the right thing right now,” said Shriver, who has been been pressuring the VA and Washington officials to do something about the dearth of veteran housing since he came on the political scene in 2004.
After Thursday's ruling, Waxman echoed Shriver's sentiment.
“(T)his court decision is not the end of the story,” Waxman said in an officials statement. “Now is the time to redouble our commitment to address the severe needs of homeless veterans in our community.
“Veterans deserve every benefit that they have earned, and I plan to continue my fight to ensure that they get everything that is owed to them,” he said.
A senior member of congress who has represented the area for nearly four decades, Waxman came under fire recently from critics who claim he wasn't using his influence to address what they consider to be a major crisis.
While it has been slow-going, some progress has been made in the battle against veteran homelessness in Los Angeles as part of the Federal government's initiative to get all homeless vets off the streets by 2015.
Earlier this month, VA Secretary Eric Shineski along with Waxman and Feinstein announced plans to ramp up efforts to address the problem like including a “one-stop shop” homeless center on the VA campus and expanding Project 60, an initiative that targets 60 of L.A.'s most vulnerable homeless vets in order to get them into homes. (“Activists Cautiously Optimistic over Federal Plan to Help Homeless Vets,” August 12)
The announcement came less than a year after Federal officials broke ground on a $20 million project renovation project that would turn Building 209 -- one of three buildings which have sat vacant for decades on the VA campus -- into a supportive housing complex for as many as 65 vets.
While the actually number of homeless vets in L.A. is unknown, estimates range from 6,000 to 8,000. And, with vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, officials expect that number to grow.
“Everyone agrees that we need to provide appropriate care for our veterans,” Sapp said. “It shouldn't be hard to come up with a solution.”
VA officials directed questions about the case to the Department of Justice's Central District of California office, which in turn directed questions to Washington, D.C.
The Lookout attempted to reach the offices in D.C. but they had already closed for the day.
Sapp doesn't expect the fight to stop, however, since the Federal government has the right to appeal Thursday's decision.
He added that he thought the resources would be better spent on building housing for homeless vets.
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