Opinion Editorial

Housing homeless vets in West L.A.

On a day when we honor the men and women who've served in the U.S. military, we must not forget that tens of thousands of veterans across the country are homeless, including an estimated 6,300 living in Los Angeles County, the largest concentration of homeless veterans in the United States.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has not done enough to address this shameful situation. For years, activists and advocates have been urging the department to repurpose some of the existing unoccupied buildings on its sprawling 387-acre campus in West Los Angeles, turning them into permanent supportive housing for homeless vets, many of whom suffer from debilitating brain injuries or mental disabilities. But the VA has been maddeningly slow; it is currently overhauling just one building, in hopes that, eventually, some 65 vets will be able to live there. Two other buildings on the property have long awaited renovation.

Now, with a court ruling hanging over it, the VA has a chance to jump-start the process.

In August, a federal judge ruled that the VA had misused the West L.A. campus by leasing some of the property to UCLA, the Brentwood School, a hotel laundry service and other groups for activities and services that have nothing to do with the federal agency's mandate to provide healthcare to veterans. The suit, brought by a group of severely disabled homeless veterans and the Vietnam Veterans of America, sought to compel the VA to stop being the neighborhood landlord and start taking care of its homeless veterans. Although the judge dismissed the call for permanent housing and ruled only on the impropriety of the leases, it was a win for the homeless veterans; at that point, the VA should have declined to appeal the ruling and worked to reach a settlement with the plaintiffs. Instead, it announced that it intends to appeal.

Meanwhile, UCLA, desperate not to be banished from its beloved Jackie Robinson Stadium on the VA grounds, where the school's baseball team plays, said in late October that it also would appeal the judge's ruling. In court papers, the school argued that its team has played there for nearly five decades, that it built the stadium at its own expense and that it offers veterans free tickets to games. Losing the stadium, the school said, "would render UCLA's championship-winning team homeless by the start of its next season."

Putting aside that insensitive reference to homelessness and the insignificance of the free-ticket program, we nevertheless agree that the presence of the stadium on a small portion of the VA land isn't the big problem. Homelessness is.

Instead of appealing the decision, UCLA could play a helpful role by urging the VA to sit down with the plaintiffs to work out an agreement that meets the needs of the interested parties but also ensures that the federal government fulfills its responsibility. If baseball stays, great. But what is most important is that homeless veterans finally get the housing and healthcare services they need on the West L.A. campus. That's why the VA owns the property, after all. Renovating the two other buildings that have been proposed for permanent supportive housing would be a good start.

UCLA, to its credit, has a decades-long history of involvement with the VA's health services on that campus. Hundreds of doctors and residents work there throughout the year, and there are a variety of programs at UCLA that concentrate on veterans' medical and health needs, including Operation Mend, which provides extensive reconstructive surgery — free — to veterans who have suffered severe, deforming injuries.

Whether the school could offer additional services targeted specifically to homeless veterans, and whether it could pay the VA more than the $5,000 a month it does now for use of the stadium, are negotiable points for UCLA. "Everything is on the table," says Kevin Reed, UCLA's vice chancellor for legal affairs. Mark Rosenbaum of the American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the suit on behalf of the plaintiffs, has said repeatedly that he and his clients want to sit down and negotiate.

Let's get this matter out of the courtroom and get the VA launched on housing its homeless vets — so we don't have to observe next Veterans Day with the same lament.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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