Published June 22, 2011
| Associated Press
LOS ANGELES – Civil rights lawyers criticized a plan adopted Wednesday by the Department of Veterans Affairs for a sprawling Los Angeles campus at the center of a lawsuit claiming the agency was failing to house homeless vets on the property as intended.
The West Los Angeles VA Medical Center master plan does not include any commitment to care for vets who need permanent homes after traumatic wartime experiences, said American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California attorney Mark Rosenbaum.
While the VA announced Tuesday that its plan would call for the renovation of three buildings for homeless vets, the actual document released a day later identified those buildings as only being candidates for potential renovation, Rosenbaum stressed.
"It is a direct slap in the face for tens of thousands of homeless vets," he said. "If you want to imagine a document that says 'We don't care about you and we're turning our back to you,' this is that document."
VA spokesman Joshua Taylor said the renovations were termed as "potential" because they require approval from Congress.
"Our process is complete in terms of proposing the plan and making the recommendation to Congress," he said. "The ball is now in their court."
He said $20 million had already been allocated for one of the three buildings and that construction could begin in December if Congress approves the master plan before then, although the other two will require an additional appropriation.
Taylor said the VA was committed to completing all the projects identified in the master plan, which has been in the works for months and also includes outpatient clinics and research facilities.
The three renovations "will create long-term therapeutic and supporting housing programs at the West Los Angeles campus focusing on the most chronically homeless and disabled veterans," said Taylor, who could not comment on the lawsuit.
Homeless veterans claimed in the federal lawsuit filed June 8 that the VA had misused the 387-acre plot of land, which was donated by private owners in 1888 to house veterans. It accused the department of breach of fiduciary duty for leasing much of the property to private entities instead of using it for veterans housing.
The suit sought an injunction forcing the department to use the property for the housing and care of wounded vets, among other demands.
There were 7,000 homeless veterans in the Los Angeles area in 2010, about 10 percent of the country's total population of 71,609 homeless vets, according to the VA's most recent tally.
Four plaintiffs who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and other ailments were named as plaintiffs in the case, which sought class-action status. It named VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System director Donna M. Beiter as defendants.
The lawsuit said the land was used to permanently house veterans until the 1960s and 1970s, when the VA stopped accepting new residents and allowed buildings that had provided permanent housing to fall into disrepair or be used for other purposes.
There are currently 70 beds for veterans needing long-term residential care in an on-campus Salvation Army facility, according to the VA.
Some 110 acres of the campus have been leased to private users, including a car rental company for vehicle storage, a hotel for laundry facilities, and an energy company for an oil well, the suit claimed.
The VA listed the maintenance of its land use and lease agreements as among its 10 guiding principles in the master plan released Wednesday.
Beiter said in a statement that revenue from those lease agreements would "continue to be used to enhance the patient-centered care environment for veterans."
The plan also said that the agency's priorities were the construction of an acute care center, a research building and a nursing home, along with seismic work on buildings at high risk of earthquake damage.
ACLU lawyer David Sapp noted that the homeless-care facilities were not listed among the VA's priority projects and that the plan included scant details about the potential renovations.
"They seem to be saying, 'Were waiting on Congress to sign off on a plan that doesn't have a timeline or a funding stream or any therapeutic models,'" he said.
Jacob Adelman can be reached at http://twitter.com/jacobadelman .