More than 30,000 US troops will be coming home from Afghanistan in the next year, joining more than a million who have already returned from the war there and in Iraq. Many, crippled by post-traumatic stress disorder and brain trauma, will face homelessness—and more of those will end up living on the streets of Los Angeles than of any other city.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Almost 400 acres of Veterans Administration land in Brentwood, in West LA, is supposed to be used for housing disabled veterans. It was donated in 1888 explicitly for that purpose, and for the next eighty years tens of thousands of vets lived there, at the Pacific Branch soldiers’ home. But for the past several decades, the dormitories have been empty, and over the years the VA has leased parts of the site to Enterprise Rent-a-Car for a parking lot, to the Marriott hotels for a commercial laundry, to UCLA for a baseball field and a dog park. Meanwhile, homeless veterans sleep on the street outside the locked gates.
“If you want to spend the night at the VA in Brentwood,” says Mark Rosenbaum of the ACLU of Southern California, “you’re better off as a rental car than a homeless vet.” And if you want access to the VA land, “you’re better off as a dog.” The ACLU-SC filed a class-action suit on behalf of homeless vets in 2011 (disclosure: I’m a member of the board of the ACLU-SC Foundation).
Particularly in need of help are vets with severe mental disabilities and those suffering from PTSD and other disorders. Housing is key to treating their medical problems, and there’s a regional VA medical center across the street from the empty dorms in Brentwood. The VA, however, argues that it has no legal or other obligation to provide housing for mentally disabled vets. It has acknowledged in court that it is required to provide medical services, but it argues that it has no responsibility to provide housing, even though that housing is essential for those vets to have access to medical services.
LA is the homeless veterans capital of the country. At last count, in December 2012, the Housing Department reported 6,371 homeless vets living in LA and 62,619 nationwide. Of course, these official counts fail to find many of the vets sleeping under bridges, in alleys or in abandoned buildings.
President Obama and his secretary for veterans affairs, Eric Shinseki, have done much more than their predecessors to help homeless vets, including providing rental vouchers and money to those who have housing but are on the brink of eviction. For vets whose only problem is poverty, these measures have been successful in many places on a limited scale. But for the many homeless vets with serious psychiatric problems, substance abuse issues and physical disabilities, the solution has to be permanent supportive housing, with case managers on site.
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Meanwhile, the VA has been saying for a long time that it is going to house disabled homeless vets in Brentwood. More than five years ago, it designated three buildings for renovation. Congress appropriated $20 million for the first one in 2010, but ground was not broken until this past January, with a completion target of spring 2014. That schedule is a “reminder of how long it takes the agency to do so little,” the Los Angeles Times declared in an editorial, “despite the enormity of the problem.” And nothing is happening with the other two buildings.
What do you get for $20 million? The VA says it will refurbish fifty-five apartments, forty-five as single rooms and ten as doubles, housing a total of sixty-five people. That’s around $300,000 per person. “That’s ridiculous,” says Robert Rosebrock of the Old Veterans Guard, which has been demonstrating every Sunday for five years outside the locked gates. “We could build a tent city and house thousands of homeless vets for that money.”
Last year, US District Judge S. James Otero rejected the VA motion to dismiss the ACLU-SC’s case. Mark Rosenbaum hailed that ruling as “the first time in the nation’s history that a federal court has held the VA responsible for assuring that severely mentally disabled veterans have access to housing and services…they require to heal the wounds of war.”
Why won’t the VA agree to house homeless vets on the land in LA donated for that purpose? “The opposition of Brentwood homeowners” to housing homeless vets in their upscale neighborhood—probably the most valuable real estate west of the Mississippi—has been a key factor, writes longtime LA columnist Bill Boyarsky. Maybe that’s why Senator Barbara Boxer hasn’t said a word about the Brentwood VA land. (In January, she introduced a pathetic bill permitting voluntary contributions on federal income tax returns to fund homeless programs.) Senator Dianne Feinstein in February called on the VA to refurbish those other two Brentwood buildings for housing, which—if it happens—will bring the number of vets housed there to around 200. “This case could be settled tomorrow,” Rosenbaum says, if the VA established a plan to provide permanent housing for severely mentally disabled veterans on the Brentwood land donated for that purpose. But the government continues to argue that it doesn’t have to do that. Summary judgment motions are due April 10.
Editor's note: An image caption in this article originally stated that Enterprise Rent-A-Car currently occupied the Veterans Affairs medical center parcel in Los Angeles. Enterprise Rent-A-Car's lease in the lot ended in May, 2012, and was not renewed.