Boxer, Feinstein back plan to move homeless vets to VA campus

California's two U.S. senators will propose legislation Thursday that would move some of the thousands of veterans living in makeshift encampments across the region into housing at the Department of Veterans Affairs' campus in West Los Angeles.

The move comes as Southern California is seeing an increase in the homeless population in downtown Los Angeles and other parts of the region. A count released earlier this year by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority found a 12% jump in the overall homeless ranks and a 6% rise among homeless veterans.

In a letter to the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) said the legislation would grant the VA the authority to enter into leases with local governments and nonprofit groups to provide veterans with shelter supplemented by medical and other services.

Critics say that politicians and the VA have dragged their heels on permanent housing for the Westside campus. They say that the agency and its political allies were more interested in the money that had come from other ventures on the sprawling property such as storing rental cars and buses, and operating a laundry service.

The legislation would help the VA satisfy the terms of a legal settlement announced in January that laid the groundwork to turn the West Los Angeles campus into a community for homeless veterans.

The settlement also called for curtailing the controversial practice of leasing VA property and facilities to corporations, the private Brentwood School and other non-government entities.

The deadline to develop a master plan for the 387-acre property is October.

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VA Secretary Robert McDonald and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti have agreed to work toward the goal of ending veteran homelessness in Los Angeles by the end of the year. Los Angeles County has about 4,400 chronically homeless veterans, according to a January count by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

"There is a critical need for long-term supportive housing," the lawmakers said in a statement. "Los Angeles is home to the largest population of homeless veterans in the country, which is simply unacceptable."

For years, the VA has come under fire for alleged mismanagement of the West Los Angeles campus. In 2011, the American Civil Liberties Union and others sued the agency, charging that it illegally leased portions of its campus to entities unrelated to its mission of providing veterans' healthcare and support. The entities included a television studio and UCLA, whose baseball team uses the campus' Jackie Robinson Stadium.

In 2014, the federal Government Accountability Office found that the VA had mismanaged the campus by underbilling for those land use agreements and by improperly diverting funds.

VA spokesman Michael Huff said Wednesday that the agency welcomed the congressional support, which would give the department authority to enter into enhanced use leases only for the purpose of providing supportive housing.

"This legislation, if passed, will greatly enhance our ability to end veteran homelessness in greater Los Angeles," Huff said. "Working collaboratively with our partners at all levels of government and the private sector is an important step to providing veterans with the best care possible in the most timely way."

He also said the legislation leaves open the door for UCLA to keep using the stadium in exchange for providing care for veterans. "UCLA is a valued medical partner," Huff said.

The university already provides a wide range of medical care for veterans through its Operation Mend program, and it plans to study the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.

In a statement, UCLA said that the relationship between the West Los Angeles campus and the university helps the VA achieve its goal of ensuring the campus is "veteran-centric."

sarah.parvini@latimes.com

Twitter: @sarahparvini

martha.groves@latimes.com

Twitter: @MarthaGroves

Times staff writer Gale Holland contributed to this report.

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