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West LA VA Releases Master Plan; ACLU Not Impressed  

By Ann K. Williams
Lookout Staff

June 28, 2011 – The West Los Angeles Veteran Affairs (WLA VA) Medical Center has published a final Master Plan to guide its development over the next 50 years, and critics say it doesn't do enough to help the region's homeless mentally ill veterans.

While WLA VA officials say in the plan that they offer thousands of beds to veterans throughout Los Angeles county, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a complaint claiming that homeless veterans are entitled to supportive housing on the WLA campus, which plaintiffs say they need so that their medical treatment can be effective.

Recent statements by the VA, including the publication of the final draft of the VA Master Plan, “reinforce our belief that there are people in the VA who want to do the right thing and need more support and outside pressure to push the VA to provide chronically homeless veterans with the help they need,” said ACLU Attorney David Sapp.

In spite of thousands of beds made available in the area by the VA, including housing run by the VA in partnership with the Salvation Army and New Directions, Santa Monica Councilmember Bobby Shriver told the Lookout earlier in the month that this kind of housing is not adequate to address the needs of mentally ill veterans.

It's like having the services offered at the top floor of a tall building, and the elevator only goes up to the third floor, and the patient is in a wheelchair, he said, explaining that these veterans need housing, counseling and health services close to each other.

At least 12 buildings on the WLA VA campus are empty and need extensive repair, and some of these may be available for the kind of supportive housing Shriver and the ACLU insist is needed.

The WLA VA Master Plan proposes renovating buildings 205, 208 and 209 “to make them available for homeless housing.”

Congress has already approved $20 million to transform building 209 into supportive housing for mentally ill homeless veterans, and once federal legislators have approved the Master Plan, construction can begin, Wileen Hernandez, public affairs specialist for WLA VA told the Lookout Monday.

VA officials hope to break ground by December 2011, said Hernandez.

But Sapp said the recent flurry of VA press releases and the publication of the Master Plan aren't enough.

“Our veterans need beds and care, not words,” he said.

The master plan and accompanying press releases aren't any different from proposals and statements issued by the VA years ago, said Sapp.

The plan to designate buildings 205, 208 and 209 for homeless veteran programs was announced by the VA in 2007, and then Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholsen promised the VA “was committed to provide world-class care” for veterans in the Los Angeles area.

A press release dated June 21, 2011 says pretty much the same thing, said Sapp – a promise to renovate the same three buildings, and a commitment by current VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to “end...homelessness in Los Angeles and throughout the country.”

And the Master Plan itself, though repeating a long-standing commitment to care for all veterans, is long on proposals, but short on concrete commitments, including timelines, Sapp said.

“The only firm commitment from the VA was to private companies and entities currently using the land,” said Sapp. The WLA VA leases portions of its grounds to various outside operations, including a laundry and a car rental agency – a practice that is attacked by the ACLU lawsuit which claims that the rentals are a violation of the 1888 grant that called for the grounds to be used for a soldier's home.

In any event, the Master Plan has to be approved by Congress before work on supportive housing can begin, Hernandez said.

In May, U.S. Representative Henry Waxman and Senator Dianne Feinstein sent a letter to Shinseki and Jack Lew, director of the Office of Management and Budget, calling on them to “finalize the Department's request to Congress for construction projects, which includes a $20 million authorization for homeless projects on the West LA campus.

“Without this request, Congress cannot work to quickly authorize this critical project,” they said.

The $20 million has been authorized and is included in the President's budget, but until it's released, construction can't begin.

To review the final draft of the Master Plan and statements by the WLA VA, go to its website.


“Our veterans need beds and care, not words.” David Sapp

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