LOS ANGELES – A lawsuit filed Wednesday accuses the federal government of misusing a 390-acre plot of land in Los Angeles that was donated some 130 years ago for facilities to house veterans who need care after traumatic military experiences.
The suit claims the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs leased much of the property at its West Los Angeles facility to private entities instead of using it for veterans' permanent supportive housing.
It was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California and other public interest lawyers on behalf of disabled, homeless veterans.
The lawsuit accuses the department of breach of fiduciary duty and seeks an injunction forcing the department to use the property for the housing and care of wounded vets, among other demands.
"We bring suit today to provide these veterans the permanent supportive housing they must have in order to access the medical and psychiatric services to which they are lawfully entitled," ACLU lawyer Mark Rosenbaum said at a press conference announcing the lawsuit. "The VA could quite literally end veteran homelessness in Los Angeles if this land were used as it was intended."
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.
The suit specifies four plaintiffs — three Iraq veterans and a woman who was raped while serving in the Army — who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and other ailments. It seeks class-action status.
The lawsuit's lead plaintiff, 33-year-old Southern California native Greg Valentini, came home from serving in Afghanistan and Iraq with PTSD, which prompted him to use illegal drugs, the lawsuit said.
Valentini became homeless after his father forced him out of their home over his drug use, the suit said. He is currently in a transitional housing facility, but he has trouble interacting with people during his bus ride to the West Los Angeles campus to be treated for PTSD and drug addiction, the suit said.
"It's been very hard for me to adjust to life back home. It feels like I'm on alert all the time, and I have trouble stopping myself from thinking about the things I've seen," Valentini said in a statement read aloud at the press conference by Steve Mackey, the California president of the Vietnam Veterans of America, who explained that Valentini's mental state kept him from attending the event.
The rape victim, who is not identified in the suit, was discharged from a clinic on the West Los Angeles campus less than four months after being admitted with PTSD, the lawsuit said. She was told to move into a Skid Row hotel that offered counseling but did not feel safe there and ultimately opted to live in her car, the suit said.
The suit named VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System director Donna M. Better as defendants.
Veterans Affairs spokesman Joshua P. Taylor referred questions about the lawsuit to the U.S. Department of Justice and released a statement highlighting Shinsekis 2009 pledge to end veteran homelessness by 2015 and other efforts to address the issue.
Department of Justice spokesman Thom Mrozek said his agency was reviewing the lawsuit and was not yet in a position to comment.
Veterans groups across the country have repeatedly skirmished with the VA over plans to lease land to private entities, said Vietnam Veterans of America national president John Rowan.
A proposal to build housing at the site of the St. Albans veterans center in Queens, N.Y., for example, prompted U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks to introduce legislation last month banning the sale or transfer of any of part of the campus.
Rowan said the West Los Angeles case is the most egregious he's seen of the VA's misuse of land, since it was explicitly deeded for use by homeless veterans.
"The folks gave it up for a specific reason," he said.
The 387-acre parcel at the center of the lawsuit, now known as the West Los Angeles Medical Center & Community Living Center campus, is a rare expanse of open green space in one of Southern California's most densely populated areas. Scattered hospital buildings can be seen on the fenced property from the surrounding traffic-choked streets.
The property is not far from the upscale community of Brentwood and the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles. The school's baseball stadium is on the VA parcel.
The lawsuit said the property was deeded to the government by gold-miner-turned-U.S. Sen. John P. Jones and wealthy landowner Arcadia Bandini de Baker in 1888 in order to provide housing for disabled war veterans.
Carolina Winston Barrie, de Baker's great niece, said at the press conference that she and other descendants of the land donors have told VA leaders and elected officials for years that the land was being misused, but they have been ignored.
"Over the years, our families witnessed the degradation of the land, the lack of care for the veterans ... and the violation of the donors' intent," she said.
The suit 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.
While the property hosts veterans' medical clinics, some 110 acres 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.
Rosenbaum said officials have never publicized how much the VA is receiving from the land deals, and what the proceeds are used for.
"There has been no public accounting of the behind-the-closed-doors negotiations that led to these uses," he said. "This is scandalous. This is VA-gate."