Lawsuit demands housing on VA’s West Los Angeles campus

Fourteen veterans filed a lawsuit in federal court on Tuesday Demands that the US Department of Veterans Affairs provide permanent housing for thousands of homeless veterans on and around its West Los Angeles campus and take steps to ensure that portions of property leased to outside organizations are used primarily for veterans.

The lawsuit, prepared by the public counsel, the Inner City Law Center and two private law firms, also names the National Veterans Foundation as plaintiffs and seeks housing for the thousands of veterans it serves who are suffering from serious mental illness, traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder.

The veterans’ attorneys are seeking an order that will give the agency six months to create 1,200 new homes on the 388-acre West Los Angeles campus, lease and support an additional 2,500 units in existing homes within a five-mile radius to offer services.

The VA could do this by accelerating the renovation of dozens of abandoned buildings on the property according to a 2015 master plan, or by rapidly building new housing like the military does in combat zones, one of the plaintiff’s attorneys, Eve Hill, told the law firm Brown, Goldstein & Levy in Baltimore and DC.

The VA’s failure to provide supportive housing forces these veterans to “accept institutionalization or forgo services,” it said.

“Whether you put a big chunk of it on campus, how you split it up, where you put people, it’s all flexible,” Hill said. “The result is what matters.”

To overcome obstacles in finding available housing for subsidized renters, the agency could increase the amount paid through vouchers, improve outreach services and provide better incentives for landlords, Hill said.

In a statement Wednesday, the VA declined to comment on ongoing litigation but said it “will not rest until every veteran has a good, safe and stable home in this country that they have fought to defend.”

The agency has provided more than 950 permanent housing places for LA veterans this year and expects to open 179 new units on the west LA campus early next year and more than 500 by the end of the year, in addition to the 138 opened this year year were opened.

Much of the 106-page lawsuit, filed electronically Tuesday night in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, tells the stories of 14 individual plaintiffs, including Lavon Johnson, the son of two military personnel. Johnson enlisted in the Army as a teenager and served nearly five years, including in Iraq, but has been homeless in the ten years since his honorable discharge.

He was treated in the VA for mental illness and anger issues while living in the former homeless camp just outside the VA compound on San Vicente Boulevard, the lawsuit says.

He was known for playing classical music on a piano he salvaged from the garbage. Johnson moved into an eight-by-eight-foot structure in the tiny home makeshift village that the VA built when the camp was vacated last November. The piano was placed in a storage room, which was locked when he attempted to use it.

The lawsuit alleges that these tiny homes are “so institutional that they’re a prison. Residents are forced to submit to searches, are denied visits and are surrounded by fences and security guards.”

Plaintiffs deserve a real home, Hill said. “It can’t be institutions.”

The lawsuit alleges that the VA has neglected the mental health of thousands of veterans for decades by maintaining a system of services to which they have no access because they have no housing.

“The phrase ‘homeless veteran’ should be an American oxymoron,” it said. “But this is the cruel truth — the federal government consistently refuses to live up to its word and take meaningful action to end the atrocity of veteran homelessness.”

Instead, it added: “The VA provides institutional services and temporary housing, leaving veterans with serious mental illness and TBI [traumatic brain injury] who could live in community-based permanent supportive housing with no other options than accepting institutionalization or forgoing services. As a result, the VA remains a leading cause of persistent homelessness among veterans.”

The lawsuit also seeks to oblige the VA to do so Ensure that portions of the campus currently leased to UCLA, nearby Brentwood School, a parking lot company, and an oil drilling company are used primarily for veterans.

“The VA failed to consult with veterans to build and recently expand UCLA’s state-of-the-art baseball facilities on land where the VA is required to build permanent supportive housing,” the lawsuit states. As a consolation to veterans, the facility said it offers them free parking.

“Veterans have to take comfort in knowing they can park for free where they should have a home.”

A 2021 VA Office of Inspector General report found that several of these leases violated the VA’s legal obligation to use the land “primarily for the benefit of veterans and their families.”

“As a result of these land use agreements, veterans have limited access to, or are barred from, much of the WLA campus altogether, and this land is consequently unavailable to provide housing for veterans or otherwise expand the services offered to veterans on the WLA campus. ‘ the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit builds on promises the VA made in resolving a 2011 case involving 10 veterans with severe disabilities. The VA agreed to design and implement a master plan to provide housing and support services for veterans, setting a goal of 480 units in four years.

Last November, the VA Inspector General took the agency to task for having completed only one 55-unit building out of 480.

“Reasons for VA’s limited progress include required environmental impact studies, required infrastructure upgrades, the need to establish a lease for the main developer with extended use, and challenges faced by the developers in raising the necessary funds from public and private sources ‘ said the Inspector General.

Attorneys handling the lawsuit say these are not valid excuses.

“If you can build housing for veterans in Afghanistan and Baghdad, you can do it in Los Angeles,” said Mark Rosenbaum, attorney for the public counsel.

“Every president, regardless of party, has made a commitment to end veteran homelessness,” Rosenbaum said. “What we are telling the President of the United States to do is follow what you have said.”

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-11-16/lawsuit-seeks-to-speed-housing-on-the-west-los-angeles-veterans-campus Lawsuit demands housing on VA’s West Los Angeles campus

Alley Einstein

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