Photo by Zaydee Sanchez.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs was hit with a civil rights lawsuit late Tuesday by homeless veterans in Los Angeles and their advocates. The plaintiffs are accusing the agency of misusing a huge VA campus in West LA and breaking a promise to build 1,200 affordable apartments there. Instead, the complaint says, the VA routinely pushes the region’s neediest veterans into temporary shelters, psychiatric facilities, and jails — depriving them of housing and health care benefits.
The 14 veterans behind the suit, who are all unhoused and all suffer from serious mental or physical disabilities, are asking a federal court to force the VA to improve housing access for disabled veterans on and near the VA’s 388-acre West Los Angeles medical campus. They also want to ban the VA from entering lease agreements on that campus — which was donated to the government specifically to house veterans — with outside renters that have nothing to do with veteran care. The National Veterans Federation, an advocacy organization, is also a plaintiff.
The case is essentially a do-over of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2011 on behalf of a different group of homeless veterans. The public interest attorney behind both suits, Mark Rosenbaum, says he regrets resolving the first case with a good faith agreement for the VA to build housing on its West LA campus. Seven years later, the VA has completed only a tiny fraction of what it promised. The only recourse, Rosenbaum says, is to sue again.
“We trusted the government to come through, and that turned out to be a grievous mistake for these vets,” said Rosenbaum, who now works for Public Counsel and filed the new case along with attorneys from Inner City Law Center, Brown Goldstein & Levy, and Robins Kaplan LLP. “It was a disgrace, and it’s got to be corrected.”
In an email, a VA spokesperson said the agency can’t comment on pending litigation. But, he wrote, “There is nothing more important to VA than ending veteran homelessness — both in Los Angeles and across the country.” He said VA has provided more than 950 permanent housing placements to LA veterans during this calendar year, and made more than 130 new units of veteran housing available in LA, with 700 more expected in 2023.
Los Angeles County has long had the country’s highest number of homeless veterans — nearly 4,000 by last count. It also has one of the largest VA medical centers in the country. Situated on a gated campus nearly half the size of Central Park, the West Los Angeles VA is just west of the 405 freeway, surrounded by some of LA’s wealthiest neighborhoods. It has a hospital, in-patient clinics for mental health and substance use disorders, one traditional group homeless shelter, and a “tiny home” village for unhoused veterans, among other facilities. It also has one apartment building with 54 affordable units for low-income veterans.
The promise to build more housing on the campus is tied to the unique way the property came into the federal government’s hands. It was donated more than 130 years ago, when West LA was little more than ranchland, by a wealthy widow named Arcadia Bandini de Stearns Baker. She stipulated that the land she gave must be used to house disabled veterans. At the time, about 20 years after the Civil War, the U.S. had a system of “soldiers homes” around the country. The West LA campus became known as The Pacific Branch, with thousands of veterans living there by the early 1920s.
In the 20th century, however, the modern VA got out of the housing business to focus on what it does today: health care, cemeteries, and benefits. It stopped taking in new residents at the West LA campus in the 1960s, and evicted remaining ones the following decade, turning the property over to medical uses.
Still, shells of the community that once lived there remained in the form of abandoned buildings, left to crumble over time. The VA also rented unused portions of the land to dozens of commercial entities that had nothing to do with veteran care. UCLA and the private Brentwood School built athletic facilities on the campus; Enterprise Rent-a-Car leased space at one time; and the City of LA rented land for a public dog park, to name a few.
While renters with no connection to veterans enjoyed the donated property, LA’s neediest veterans slept on the street, and according to advocates, struggled to access the fortress-like campus. The first lawsuit was an attempt to return the property to its original intended purpose.
“We thought, well, the least they can do is build housing on land that was originally deeded to be a soldiers home in the first place,” said Rosenbaum, the lawyer. So in 2011 he and other attorneys sued the Obama administration for misusing the land and discriminating against LA’s most disabled veterans.
After two years of litigation, a federal court judge struck down the leases, saying that entities not principally devoted to serving veterans had no business on the land. After that ruling, the Justice Department finally sat down with the ACLU to hammer out a deal. The two sides announced their agreement in 2015. Then-VA Secretary Bob McDonald went in front of TV cameras and explained that under the deal, the VA would develop a master land-use plan for the campus, to include housing for needy veterans.
“We’re moving forward together, designing a plan to end homelessness among veterans in Los Angeles County,” McDonald said at the time. The plan they developed calls for renovating some of the dilapidated buildings on campus into at least 1,200 units of affordable housing for low-income veterans.
Transforming the West Los Angeles VA campus back into a community for veterans, VA officials said, would help end LA’s days as the nation’s capital of veteran homelessness. It could even help make LA a national model, they said. If the government could finally end veteran homelessness here, they could end it anywhere.
Instead, the opposite happened.
As other cities, from Philadelphia to Las Vegas, have ended veteran homelessness, LA has lagged. Nationally, the number of unhoused veterans went down 11% between 2020 and 2022. Yet in LA it has barely budged since 2015, remaining around 4,000.
Meanwhile the VA has made little progress on its housing plan. It was supposed to have more than 700 units completed by now, but has opened only about 54, though construction is ongoing. Some of the leases deemed illegal in 2013 remain, including the Brentwood School and UCLA, which has a baseball field on campus. The two schools lobbied in Washington, D.C. to stay on the land and agreed to provide veteran services as a condition of their leases — an arrangement that’s still a thorn in the side of veteran advocates.
“I really hope some of these entities get held accountable,” said Robert Reynolds, an Army veteran who served in Iraq and helped find plaintiffs for the new lawsuit. “They do some things for veterans, but they don’t principally benefit veterans or their families. A lot of time they throw scraps at veterans and publicize it like it’s something great, but it’s not.”
In interviews with KCRW and public statements earlier this year, VA officials have blamed the glacial pace of carrying out their master plan on cumbersome environmental reviews required by law, and the difficulty of renovating old buildings with outdated utilities. “But we believe we are now making real and substantial progress,” said Keith Harris, the VA executive in charge of implementing the campus plan and a defendant in the lawsuit, on a call with reporters in April. He said more than 200 new units were expected to open before the end of this year and a total of 550 would be done by the end of 2024. (The 200 have since been pushed to early 2023, and more than 500 additional units are expected by the end of 2025, according to the VA spokesperson.)
“I recognize that a lot of that was supposed to have been done by now,” said Harris. “But we’re back on track and moving forward.”
There’s another reason, however, that the U.S. federal government is taking longer to open 1,200 apartments for homeless veterans than it did to put a man on the moon: money. VA leaders in LA say the agency isn’t allowed to pay for the housing. Instead, a team of private housing developers hired to build the apartments must cobble together funding from a variety of sources, a time-consuming process. Even the City of Los Angeles has helped subsidize this housing on federal land, kicking in more than $30 million from a voter-approved bond measure, Proposition HHH, for three VA buildings currently under renovation. The loans were controversial at City Hall, according to LA City Councilmember Mike Bonin.
“There were some who said, ‘Well, it’s not in the City of Los Angeles, so we shouldn’t be using [HHH money],’” said Bonin, whose district abuts the campus. “I argued that we surround the place. The veterans are primarily coming from Los Angeles, let’s be part of the solution.”
VA officials have been unable to give a clear answer about why the agency, which has a $300 billion-plus annual budget, can’t pay for the affordable housing it promised to build.
“Because of the laws that we have in our country, VA is not allowed, not permitted, not authorized to build housing for any veterans or anyone else, unless it is specifically tied to a treatment program,” said Dr. Steven Braverman, director of the VA’s health care system for the Los Angeles region (and another defendant in the case, along with VA Secretary Denis McDonough) in April. But he couldn’t cite any specific laws. Braverman also argued that legal restrictions are part of why renters like UCLA and the Brentwood School should remain on campus, despite the 2013 federal court ruling.
“I’m a pragmatist,” said Braverman. “We’re going to take advantage of the beneficial aspects of the leases,” meaning the rent payments and veteran services provided by campus tenants.
A VA spokesperson, when asked to clarify Braverman’s remarks, said by email that the VA isn’t permitted to build or pay for housing because Congress hasn’t given the agency the funding or permission to do so. But local VA leaders haven’t asked for those things either. In fact, they’ve even avoided opportunities to pitch in on the housing. For example, budget records show that after the original lawsuit settlement, VA officials in LA scrapped a multi-year, $370 million plan to retrofit a dozen old buildings on campus. Instead, they asked Congress for only about a third of the money and dropped buildings slated to become homeless housing from the plans.
In other words, once certain buildings became part of the housing plan, local VA officials decided that upgrading them was no longer part of the agency’s job, leaving it for the hired developers to handle down the road. Because, the VA spokesperson said by email, the agency’s “core mission” is providing health care, benefits, and memorial services. “VA’s core mission does not include the provision of permanent housing,” he wrote.
Attorney Mark Rosenbaum rejects the VA’s excuses about why it can’t pay for the housing.
“That’s not just inhumane,” he said, “and it’s not just a set of bullshit lies. It’s also against the law.” He says for veterans disabled by their service who see doctors on the VA campus, housing can’t be separated from healthcare.
The complaint calls for the VA to make permanent, supportive housing available for at least 3,500 needy veterans on or near the West LA campus within six months.
“You can’t say to them, ‘You can’t be in housing near where those services are,’” said Rosenbaum. By denying disabled veterans housing on or near the West LA campus, he continued, the VA is “denying basic mental and physical health services, and saying, ‘Your lives don’t matter.’”
Joshua Petitt, a plaintiff in the new lawsuit and a 39-year-old Army veteran, agrees.
“You have to jump through all these hoops,” he said of receiving care at the VA campus. “But you have to find out what hoop it is, make sure it’s the right hoop. And you have to do all this on your own because the VA won’t do it for you.”
Petitt served as an infantry soldier in Iraq from 2004 to 2005 in Anbar province, fighting in some of the most violent battles of the Iraq War. Petitt was awarded three purple hearts for his service. After returning stateside, he suffered from severe PTSD, which he says led him to self-medicate with methamphetamine.
“So I wouldn’t have to sleep,” he said. “No sleep means no nightmares. I thought I found the cure.”
After a divorce in 2010, Petitt fell into homelessness, which he’s been in and out of ever since. He started going to the VA for mental health services about a decade ago, and says while professionals at the VA steered him into drug rehab, it’s been difficult to find and keep stable housing through the VA. He wants to live in an apartment on campus, close to other veterans he knows, his therapist, and other medical care. For now he’s living in one of the VA’s “tiny homes” for homeless veterans, an eight-by-eight-foot shed type structure.
Ironically, the disability benefits Petitt receives for his PTSD are another obstacle to him finding permanent housing on the West LA campus. The $3,600 he receives each month puts him above the threshold for a lot of subsidized housing. Yet that income, minus $600 a month in child support and other fixed expenses, isn’t enough to rent an apartment on his own close to the West LA campus where, according to the complaint, “he needs to live because of the extensive supportive services he receives for his PTSD, and because of the support he requires from living in a veteran community to help control his anger.”
As things stand now, when the new apartments on the VA campus do open, Petitt won’t be eligible to move in. He hopes that will change.
“This is a special VA for me,” he said. “For a lot of us here, because we know what the potential is. We know that it can benefit thousands of veterans if it’s done right.”
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Homeless veterans sue VA for failing to deliver on housing promise in West LA
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Photo by Zaydee Sanchez.