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Homeless vets sue VA alleging inadequate housing and treatment at West L.A. campus

June 8, 2011 | 11:06 am

Contending that the region's population of disabled homeless veterans has reached crisis proportions, a coalition led by the ACLU of Southern California filed a lawsuit Wednesday alleging that the federal Department of Veterans Affairs has misused large portions of its West Los Angeles campus and failed to provide adequate housing and treatment for the people it was intended to serve.ACLU lawsuit

"This is the first lawsuit of its kind in the country seeking to end homelessness for U.S. veterans," said Mark Rosenbaum, legal director of the ACLU's L.A. office. "In Los Angeles we have a 387-acre parcel deeded in 1888 for the specific purpose of housing a permanent home for U.S. soldiers, and it's now housing rental cars, buses, hotel laundry facilities and state-of-the-art sports facilities for a private school."

The complaint, which seeks class-action status, was filed in U.S. district court on behalf of four disabled homeless vets; the Vietnam Veterans of America, a leading nonprofit organization dedicated to helping Vietnam-era vets and their families; and a descendant of one of the property's original owners.

Rosenbaum said the ACLU would be calling on VA officials, legislators and the White House to launch a congressional investigation into how the sprawling campus has been used. Some of the companies occupying portions of the property under an "enhanced sharing agreement" include Enterprise Rent-a-Car; Tumbleweed Transportation, a charter bus company; Sodexho Marriott, a hotel laundry facility; the UCLA baseball team; and Brentwood School, a private school with state-of-the-art sports facilities on the campus. Such uses limit the amount of land that can be devoted to housing veterans, the lawsuit contends.

"Nobody knows how the deals were negotiated, where the money has gone," Rosenbaum said.

Over the years, VA officials have said the lease agreements with private companies and others have raised money for veterans programs. In 2009, VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki unveiled his agency's five-year plan to end homelessness among veterans. Shinseki's plan included measures such as support services for low-income veterans and their families and a national referral center to link veterans to local service providers. Additionally, the plan called for expanded efforts for education, jobs, health care and housing.

Of the estimated 107,000 homeless veterans in the United States, about 8,200 are in the Los Angeles region, the VA says, citing 2009 figures. More chronically homeless veterans reside in Los Angeles than in any other city. Some sleep on the sidewalks just outside the VA fence.

For about 80 years the VA campus at Wilshire and San Vicente boulevards operated a Pacific Branch Soldiers Home, providing a permanent home and services for thousands of disabled veterans. Beginning in the 1960s the campus stopped accepting new residents and structures dedicated to housing were converted to other uses, the ACLU said. New construction focused on expanding medical and short-term treatment facilities.

Today the VA campus has more than 100 buildings, many of which are vacant or underused. With the exception of geriatric nursing beds, no permanent housing is available to disabled vets. The suit contends that permanent supportive housing is needed, along with treatment, education, case management and job training or employment.

One plaintiff is Greg Valentini, an Army vet who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. After being discharged he was diagnosed with a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder that caused him to feel hyper-alert and to experience graphic nightmares. He said he had suicidal thoughts and medicated himself with methamphetamines, eventually becoming homeless.

The VA has taken some steps to improve the plight of homeless veterans. A year ago, it committed $20 million to convert a little-used building on the campus into therapeutic housing, but the project is not completed. "We have acres and acres available," said Ronald L. Olson, an attorney working pro bono on the case. "We need to supply the kind of supportive housing that will allow them to get care."


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-- Martha Groves

Photo: Veteran Stephen E. Sherman, right, listens as Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel for the ACLU of Southern California, speaks during a news conference at the VA's West Los Angeles complex. Credit: Anne Cusack /Los Angeles Times