Prop. 41, for homeless vets, renews debate over Westside VA campus

Prop. 41, for homeless vets, renews debate over Westside VA campus
A vacant building on Department of Veterans Affairs land in West Los Angeles. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

A ballot measure aimed at eliminating California's dubious status as the nation's homeless veteran capital has rekindled a decade-old fight over the Department of Veterans Affairs' sprawling West Los Angeles campus.

Proposition 41 asks voters to redirect $600 million in bond money from a home-buying program to funding for apartments and supportive housing for poor and homeless veterans. California has the most homeless veterans of any state, 15,000 at last count, including 6,900 in Los Angeles County.


Advocates have long called for housing homeless veterans on the park-like campus on Wilshire Boulevard, site of the largest veterans medical facility in the country. The campus is also the largest undeveloped tract on the Westside, with huge swaths of lawn, lush trees and empty buildings.

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) have proposed legislation to renovate two derelict buildings on the campus for "therapeutic" housing. Prop. 41 backers say therapeutic housing does not qualify for funding under the measure.

The proposition's supporters, including former state Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, want the bond money used for permanent supportive housing. Therapeutic and permanent supportive housing offer similar mental health and substance abuse counseling to help shattered veterans get back on their feet, but with a distinction: Veterans can stay in therapeutic housing one year, with a possible 12-month extension. Supportive housing has no deadline.

"There's a lot of empirical evidence that permanent supportive housing saves public-sector dollars," said Alan Greenlee, executive director of the Southern California Assn. of Non-Profit Housing. "The mental health and healthcare needs of veterans don't go away after a year or even two years."

Waxman and Feinstein say they will fix their bill if it is inconsistent with Prop. 41. Waxman says permanent supportive housing is "inappropriate" for the West L.A. site.

"It should be dispersed throughout the county," Waxman said.

Some Prop. 41 backers, however, believe Feinstein and Waxman are bowing to affluent neighbors in Brentwood and Westwood who are opposed to having homeless residents in walking distance of their homes.

Efforts to get veterans housed at the West L.A. campus have a long history. The land was deeded in 1888 as a home for old soldiers. By the 1980s, most veterans had moved out, and deteriorating buildings stood empty.

In 2005, a VA-commissioned study called for private development of hotels, medical tech companies and mixed-used residences on the site. Opponents like former Mayor Richard Riordan, who said he rode his bike around its curving paths, asked that the property be made into "the greatest park in the world."

Waxman and Feinstein got through legislation in 2007 banning residential and commercial development through an arrangement called an enhanced-use lease. That lease has been used to build supportive housing for veterans around the country, most recently at a Veterans Affairs property in North Hills, where 147 units opened last September.

Through a different shared-use leasing mechanism, Veterans Affairs rents out parts of the West Los Angeles campus for use, including as UCLA's baseball stadium, an athletic complex for the Brentwood School, a private prep academy and a hotel laundry. The land is also leased separately for oil drilling.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the shared-use leases, saying they had nothing to do with providing healthcare. A federal judge agreed and struck the leases down last year. The veterans' agency is appealing..

Waxman says he has repeatedly urged Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki to settle the lawsuit. Waxman says Shinseki is not lifting the 2007 ban on enhanced-use leases because he is following the Veterans Affairs' master plan, which calls for renovating the two derelict buildings.

Finding affordable land and overcoming "not in my backyard" objections to homeless veteran housing in the city of Los Angeles is a daunting task, developers say. The North Hills project took 10 years, several plan modifications and an act of Congress to be completed.

"There was a lot of community push back," said Gregory Scott, president of New Directions for Veterans, which handles case management and treatment for the complex.

"If it's OK on the Sepulveda VA property why would it not be OK here?" said Laura Lake of Coalition for Veterans Land.

The Feinstein-Waxman bill is awaiting a committee hearing. Proposition 41 is on the June 3 ballot.

"The VA moves very slowly," said Dick Littlestone, a retired Army colonel who has been fighting 19 years for a columbarium on the site to preserve veterans' ashes.