The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced a legal settlement Wednesday that will transform its sprawling West Los Angeles campus into a center of permanent housing for homeless veterans and curtail the controversial practice of leasing VA facilities to corporations and other non-government entities.
Under the agreement, the VA will appoint by October a national homelessness expert to develop a master plan for how best to use the 387-acre property. Options could include renovating existing VA buildings and constructing new facilities for transitional housing and permanent housing with drug treatment, mental health counseling and other supportive services.
FOR THE RECORD:
VA property lawsuit: In the Jan. 29 California section, an article about a legal settlement over the use of the Veterans Affairs campus in West Los Angeles said that by October, a homelessness expert would be hired to develop a master plan for the property. The October deadline is for completing the master plan, not for the appointment of an expert.
The VA and its legal opponents must also create a written plan by Feb. 13 to end homelessness among veterans in Greater Los Angeles. That plan, the VA said, would focus particularly on veterans who are chronically homeless, female, aging and severely disabled.
The government also pledged to develop an "exit strategy" for tenants that are leasing facilities for uses not directly related to veterans' care. Among those are UCLA's baseball stadium, the private Brentwood School's athletic complex, a hotel laundry and storage for an entertainment studio's sets.
Such "enhanced sharing" agreements helped prompt a 2011 lawsuit that accused the VA of misusing the campus by leasing out swaths of land while veterans slept in the streets. As part of the settlement, the lawsuit will be dismissed.
VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald said he had "no question" that local and federal officials could achieve the goal of ending veteran homelessness in the county by year's end, as part of a national goal led by the Obama administration.
"This can be done," McDonald said. "It's very simple. If we don't fix it in Los Angeles, it's not going to be fixed."
The agreement does not set a housing quota or project a cost, but the expense would clearly be substantial. For comparison's sake, Los Angeles' city-county homeless authority announced a new federal award of $17 million that would be used to permanently house 1,100 people who have been on the streets a year or more.
The settlement was announced as officials conducted Los Angeles County's biennial homeless count. The county has more than 4,200 homeless veterans.
Ron Olson, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys, credited McDonald with working speedily to achieve the deal. "For 3 1/2 years we've been at this game," Olson said. He said McDonald called him a week before Christmas to begin hashing out the agreement.
Bobby Shriver, the former Santa Monica mayor who helped organize the lawsuit, has worked on the homeless-veterans issue for a decade. He said a homeless service provider years ago showed him the collapsing ceilings in one building on the VA campus and told him: "There are a bunch of these buildings, and we've got guys dying in dumpsters."
Shriver said he thought it would be easy to convert some VA buildings to help solve the problem, but instead it took years to launch the work.
Mayor Eric Garcetti, who has promised to house every homeless veteran in the city by the end of the year, hailed the settlement as a step forward.
"We must always keep our sacred promise to ensure that all veterans get the care and benefits they have earned," Garcetti said.
UCLA Chancellor Gene Block seemed to hold out hope that the university could yet negotiate the ability to keep its baseball stadium on the VA campus while stepping up its collaboration with the VA on healthcare. He said in a statement that the university looked forward to participating in the master planning process.
The VA campus is the largest undeveloped property on the Westside. Its rolling greens were deeded to the government in 1888 as a home for disabled soldiers.
Over the years, the VA leased out portions of the property for wine-tasting, benefits and other events, including parking for a professional golf tournament. Some Brentwood residents have called for preserving the land as a park. Years ago, the VA proposed developing condominiums and offices to generate funding for veteran healthcare.
The suit was brought in 2011 by the ACLU Foundation of Southern California in Los Angeles and others, alleging that the VA was misusing the campus while failing to care for veterans. In August 2013, a federal judge ruled that the VA had abused its discretion by leasing land for purposes "totally divorced from the provision of healthcare." The VA appealed the ruling, as did UCLA and Brentwood School.
John Rowan, national president of Vietnam Veterans of America and a client plaintiff in the lawsuit, said he was pleased to hear McDonald talked about "adding $50 million and 400 people" to get veterans off the streets in Los Angeles and appointing a homelessness expert.
"That's a good start," he said. "The key thing is who's going to be this homeless … czar."
Times staff writer Peter Jamison contributed to this report.