Veteran J.J. Asevedo, left, sits at a news conference announcing a lawsuit at the Los Angeles VA, June 8, 2011. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File)
Greg Valentini is a homeless vet in Los Angeles who took part in the initial invasion of Afghanistan and participated in the assault on Tora Bora that sought Osama bin Laden. He’s also a plaintiff in the class action suit brought by the ACLU of Southern California (ACLU-SC) arguing that the VA 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.” (See my Nation article “LA’s Homeless Vets.”) Valentini was a private in the 101st Airborne, and the lawsuit describes his service in Afghanistan: “He took part in significant ground fighting, under nearly constant sniper fire and mortar bombardment” and “witnessed the gruesome deaths of numerous civilians, including children.” He was redeployed to Iraq, where he again experienced heavy combat. He received six decorations for his service.
Steve Lopez, the legendary Los Angeles Times columnist, has been following Valentini. When he came back from Afghanistan, Lopez wrote, Valentini “ended up in post-combat hell, living in a tent by the Long Beach Airport, bathing in a lake and eating out of garbage cans.” He “doesn’t enjoy reviewing the harrowing details of his combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq and his later descent into suicidal fantasies, homelessness and drug addiction.” He also told Lopez “I don’t want to be a whiny vet.” He “blames the bulk of his problems on himself, rather than the VA.” But he does think it would help other homeless vets who have severe emotional problems if they could live in the VA dorms on its Brentwood campus in West LA.
The problem is that the land, donated 125 years ago for housing disabled veterans, today houses nobody. That’s why the ACLU-SC is suing the VA. (Disclosure: I’m on the board of the ACLU-SC Foundation.) Veterans of the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, WWI and WWII lived there for decades. But since the 1970s, the dormitories have been empty, and the VA has rented parts of the site to a Rent-a-Car company and a hotel laundry, along with a neighboring private school and UCLA, which use the land for athletic fields. Meanwhile homeless veterans sleep on the street outside the locked gates.
Every Sunday afternoon for the last five years a group of veterans have demonstrated in Los Angeles outside those locked gates, waving at the cars going past on Wilshire Boulevard on their way to the beach, carrying signs that read “Bring our homeless veterans ‘Home,’” and “In the deed we trust.” The deed in question is dated 1888. The VA acknowledges that the deed required that the land be used for housing disabled vets, and that the land was used for that purpose until the 1970s. But, the VA told the court, the deed is not enforceable without specific legislation by Congress. The VA said—and the court agreed—that no veteran, and no descendant of the family that donated the land (also represented by the ACLU) can enforce that deed. That’s the law, Judge Otero said, although it “may seem shocking.”
On Sunday, March 3, the vets’ group, led by Robert Rosebrock, held an event commemorating the 125th anniversary of the donation of the land to the government for veterans’ housing. The speakers included Anneke Barrie, a college student whose grandmother, Carolina Winston Barrie, is one of the ACLU plaintiffs and a direct descendant of Arcadia B. de Baker, the woman who donated the land in 1888. Standing in front of the locked gates, Anneke Barrie told the fifty demonstrators that the land was intended to provide veterans with “living quarters, food, recreation, amusements, religious instruction, employment opportunities, and medical care”—and it did that, for decades. The failure today of the VA and elected officials “to guard this precious heritage and unique gift is beyond shameful,” she said. “It is criminal.”
The LA story points to larger problems with the Obama administration and the VA. In Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention last September, he said, “When you take off the uniform, we will serve you as well as you’ve served us, because no one who fights for this country should have to fight for a job or a roof over their head or the care that they need when they come home.” He and his secretary for veterans affairs, Eric Shinseki, have declared they will end homelessness among veterans by 2015. Veterans are 50 percent more likely to become homeless than the average American, and homeless vets account for nearly 20 per cent of the people living on the streets and in shelters. At the rate the VA is working, there will still be tens of thousands of homeless vets in 2015. And LA is the capital of homeless vets in America.
But instead of housing homeless disabled vets, the VA makes a lot of money from leasing its land in Brentwood, although they did their best to keep that secret. Congressman Henry Waxman, whose district includes the VA land, told Ina Jaffe of NPR, “We’ve never been able to get a lot of the details of exactly how much money they got and how that money was used.” NPR filed an FOIA request for the long-term rental agreements, on the basis of which Jaffe estimates that, “over the past dozen years, the VA Health Care Center of West Los Angeles has taken in at least $28 million, and possibly more than $40 million.”
The ACLU lawsuit challenging the VA leasing practices is being adjudicated now, after US District Judge S. James Otero rejected VA motions to dismiss the case. Mark Rosenbaum, lead attorney for the ACLU-SC in the case, hailed that ruling last March 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.” Otero ruled that “Congress’ intention was to ensure that the [VA’s] land was used primarily to benefit veterans,” rather than a rent-a-car company or a hotel laundry.
The VA replies to critics that it is spending $20 million to refurbish one building that will house sixty-five vets. Rosebrock says they could house thousands of vets for a fraction of that in a tent city at the site. He points to the tent cities that housed Vietnamese refugees on military bases around the United States after the fall of Saigon in 1975. In South California, he says, 1,000 tents and Quonset huts were erected at Camp Pendleton in six days by 900 Marines and civilians, providing housing for 50,000 Vietnamese refugees. If we could do it for Vietnamese refugees, Rosebrock says, we can do it for homeless veterans—many of whom, incidentally, served during the Vietnam War.
But instead of housing homeless vets, the VA land in West LA was used in March to provide parking for the Northern Trust PGA Golf Tournament held nearby at the elite Riviera Country Club. Hundreds of late-model Jaguars, Mercedes and BMWs parked under the ancient eucalyptus trees, while homeless veterans sat outside the gates. Residents around the golf course didn’t want public parking on their streets, Rosebrock says, “so the golf tournament attendees park on sacred grounds where veterans from the Civil War once walked.”
Meanwhile another of the ACLU plaintiffs, a homeless Vietnam vet, “was going through the garbage on the VA campus in Brentwood,” Rosenbaum reports. “He received a citation for stealing government property. He had to pay a fine of over $100.”
Read Jon Wiener's primer on the VA-vet land war in the April 8 issue of The Nation.