The Department of Veterans Affairs campus in West Los Angeles seen in February 2022 contains 388 acres.

The Department of Veterans Affairs campus in West Los Angeles seen in February 2022 contains 388 acres. (Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — A federal district court judge in California has refused to dismiss a class-action lawsuit demanding the Department of Veterans Affairs provide housing to thousands of disabled veterans living in encampments and on the streets of Los Angeles.

U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter, in a ruling Thursday, described housing needs as urgent, stating the number of homeless veterans has tripled since an earlier lawsuit brought against the VA was settled in 2015 yet failed to yield adequate results.

“It is unclear how many veterans have died on the streets of Los Angeles in that time never having received housing or services,” Carter wrote in the Powers v. McDonough case, heard in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

The judge ordered both sides to “expedite a timeline” and move the lawsuit forward. The case is expected to advance to trial if a settlement is not reached. The next hearing date is scheduled for January 2024.

Defendants in the case are VA Secretary Denis McDonough, Steve Braverman, director of the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, and Keith Harris, senior executive homelessness agent with the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System.

“This is the greatest legal decision on behalf of veterans,” said Mark Rosenbaum, an attorney for the plaintiffs. “We are ready to go to trial in June or July [2024] and we are going to win because of the story of these veterans taking on a nation that has not served them. The only remaining questions is whether the administration and Congress will fight the veterans or reach a settlement [finding] that ‘unhoused veteran’ is an oxymoron in America.”

Jeffrey Powers, a 60-year-old Navy veteran, is among a dozen plaintiffs named in the lawsuit, along with the National Veterans Foundation. Plaintiffs were identified as homeless veterans in greater Los Angeles diagnosed with serious mental illness, brain injuries and/or physical disabilities.

“The judge has been very focused on what is best for the veteran and putting an end to the finger-pointing,” Powers said. “He wants to get this problem fixed and made it clear he will not allow [the VA] to do nothing.

“I am happy about this ruling for myself and the veterans who will come after me, so that they do not have to go through this,” said Powers, who lived in a tiny shed and before that a tent, which he abandoned because of a rat infestation at the encampment.

Los Angeles has roughly 4,000 unhoused veterans, according to a 2023 census count of homeless veterans conducted by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. That number represents a 12% rise from the previous year.

At issue is the future of a nearly 400-acre gated campus in West Los Angeles held in a charitable trust for housing and supportive services for veterans with disabilities. Veterans have camped on the sidewalk outside the campus, where VA health services are located.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys argued the land has been inappropriately leased by the VA for business developments unrelated to veterans’ health care and housing, breaching the VA’s fiduciary duty as trustee.

The lawsuit, filed in November 2022, further argued the Greater Los Angeles VA does not offer “anything close to adequate permanent supportive housing” at the campus.

Two buildings with veterans housing opened on the campus in the summer, bringing the number of housing developments for veterans to three.

A VA spokesman who spoke on condition of anonymity said the developments demonstrate “forward momentum on this critical project.”

“While there is still much work to do, VA is working aggressively to combat veteran homelessness in the Greater Los Angeles area, providing 1,464 homeless veterans with permanent housing thus far this year, which is the most of any city in America and on pace to exceed VA’s calendar year goal for 2023,” he wrote in an email.

More than $140 million has been invested at the West LA campus by the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System in the past three years, according to the VA.

But the funding is not enough to meet the housing needs of the city’s homeless disabled veterans.

At the same time, portions of the campus have been leased by the VA for oil drilling, a private school and university athletic fields.

Disabled homeless veterans meanwhile “are unable to meaningfully access” VA health care services located on the campus, according to the complaint.

They are effectively denied access to medical, mental health and other services by the health care system because of their situations, attorneys said.

The complaint argued Powers and the other plaintiffs do not “want to live in an institution in order to receive services.”

“The government they served has refused to serve them and, far from welcoming them home, has left them homeless,” according to the complaint, which argued the veterans are shut out of services and live on the streets or in conditions outside “the magnificent WLA campus.”

Numerous studies show homeless individuals with traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia and severe depression need to be stabilized in community housing near services and support, according to the complaint.

Veterans “are being unnecessarily institutionalized or placed at serious risk of institutionalization, solely by virtue of their disabilities, which represents unlawful discrimination,” according to the complaint.

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Linda F. Hersey is a veterans reporter based in Washington, D.C. She previously covered the Navy and Marine Corps at Inside Washington Publishers. She also was a government reporter at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in Alaska, where she reported on the military, economy and congressional delegation.

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