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VA's West LA campus takes 1st step to return to its deeded mission: Housing veterans

By JENNIFER HLAD | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 3, 2015

The Department of Veterans Affairs will open a transitional housing facility for veterans on Thursday and launch a planning process later in June for the redevelopment of its 387-acre West Los Angeles VA Medical Center campus, just six months after settling a 2011 lawsuit that accused the VA of misusing the land and discriminating against homeless vets.

VA Secretary Bob McDonald will be there to mark the first step in the transformation: a 60-bed housing and work therapy facility for homeless veterans. In a symbolic gesture, he will open the gates to the property’s grand lawn, closed for decades.

The redevelopment is critical, because LA County is the “epicenter of veteran need,” said Jonathan Sherin, who ran mental health services for the West Los Angeles VA hospital and now works for Volunteers of America.

LA County has the highest concentration of homeless veterans in America. LA mayor Eric Garcetti last year pledged to end veteran homelessness in his city by 2016, as part of the Obama administration’s national push. In January, Garcetti said that the city was halfway to its goal, and more than 7,500 veterans countywide have been placed in housing since 2013. Yet a three-day count earlier this year tallied 4,363 homeless veterans in LA County, down just 6 percent from 2013, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

While the number of homeless remained high, the VA was not making use of a key asset: land in west LA that was deeded to the federal government in 1888 to establish a national home for disabled veterans.

For more than 80 years, the land housed thousands of disabled vets, but by the 1970s, that housing had closed. The VA began leasing land on its prime real estate, one of the largest undeveloped properties in the city. Today, instead of housing vets, the property is the site of a VA medical facility, UCLA’s baseball stadium, a rental car business, a hotel laundry facility and other tenants not related to veterans.

“This was a huge resource and there wasn’t a single unit of permanent supportive housing on it,” said Gary Blasi, one of the attorneys that represented homeless veterans in the lawsuit.

‘Breach of trust’

In 2011, the ACLU, Vietnam Veterans of America, the matriarch of the family that donated the land and others brought a class-action lawsuit against the VA, accusing the department of misusing the land and discriminating against disabled vets by blocking their access to medical, mental health and other services.

The VA settled the lawsuit in January and has since apologized for “a breach of trust.” They agreed to provide housing for homeless vets and to hire a master planner to determine the best way to use the land. As part of the settlement, the lawsuit was dismissed.

“We want to revitalize that sacred ground,” said Sherin, who serves a subject-matter expert on the partnership between the VA and the former plaintiffs.

Later this month, the VA will announce selection of the urban planner, whose deadline for a concept including transitional and permanent housing will be Oct. 15. A nonprofit called the 1888 Fund is being formed to raise money for the restoration of five historic buildings on the campus, including a chapel and one of the original housing facilities.

The goal is to use the entire property as a “vibrant and welcoming community” for veterans, he said, with permanent supportive housing for the most disabled veterans, along with recreation, day care, employment assistance, legal counseling and more.

‘Community of belonging’

The redevelopment could take the VA’s West Los Angeles presence from an isolated medical center “to a thriving campus for well-being,” Sherin said.

Veterans of recent wars feel particularly disenfranchised by the VA, he said, but all veterans need access to “a community of belonging.”

According to a 2014 study by the University of Southern California Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families, 40 percent of veterans who served after Sept. 11, 2001, did not have a plan for permanent housing when they left the military, and about half said they have a significant physical or mental health problem for which they aren’t receiving care.

The West LA campus is just one effort to close the gap.

“We want to reverse — 180 degrees — the current dynamic between veterans and the VA,” he said.

hlad.jennifer@stripes.com
Twitter: @jhlad

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