Badly needed veterans home sits half empty; no kitchen is a problem

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at the groundbreaking for a veterans home in West L.A. in 2007; the home opened in 2010 and is still only half full, partly because it lacks a kitchen.
(Gabriel Bouys, AFP/Getty Images)

In June of 2010, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger stood on the grounds of the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs campus and dedicated the $253-million home for veterans.

“One of our greatest obligations to our veterans is making sure that each and every one has a roof over their head and a place that they can call home,” Schwarzenegger told the veterans and dignitaries who gathered that day.

Three months after the ribbon-cutting, the 396-bed building opened for business, a significant milestone in a region with thousands of homeless veterans.


But today, after four years of mind-boggling bureaucratic breakdowns, half the beds in the West Los Angeles Home for Veterans are still empty.

If you think that’s shocking, wait until you hear this:

One reason for the vacancies is that the building, operated by the state, was constructed without a kitchen. The state thought it had an agreement with the federal Department of Veterans Affairs to provide food service to the home, but the deal broke down as the building was being completed.

So why hasn’t the state figured out how to build its own kitchen in the four years since, even as hundreds of California veterans have been on waiting lists for the kind of housing and skilled nursing care the home for veterans was designed to provide?

If there’s a good answer, I haven’t been able to find it.

“It’s just a bureaucratic flop,” said Shad Meshad of the nonprofit National Veterans Foundation.

“A boondoggle,” said vet activist John Keaveney, one of the founders of New Directions, which is next door to the state facility and serves formerly homeless vets.

And what does the state Department of Veterans Affairs (CalVet) have to say about all this?


I’d love to tell you, but it’s not clear what will come first — the new kitchen, or answers to the many questions I’ve posed since last week about why the building is still half empty as it marks its four-year anniversary.

I also asked to speak to the new administrator appointed recently by Gov. Jerry Brown to run the home, but no response yet on that, either. In the past, CalVet has attributed the empty-bed problem to funding and licensing issues, and a state audit last year identified the kitchen problem as a big factor.

To learn more about that, I checked the video of a March exchange between CalVet officials and members of an Assembly budget committee, and it was worse than a visit to a sausage factory.

CalVet undersecretary Diane Vanderpot told committee members the kitchen would be in the “drawing phase through May of 2015,” and completed by spring of 2016. “But we are on track,” her colleague said.

If 2016 is “on track” — that would be six years after the building opened — I think we can all understand the depth of the problem.

“What’s the possibility of maybe shortening that timeline?” asked Assemblyman Adrin Nazarian (D-Sherman Oaks).

Vanderpot passed Nazarian off to CalVet colleague Dave Gerard, who said the process of speeding up the process could be complicated, requiring some bureaucratic acrobatics and extra expense. He guessed it wouldn’t pay off in the end, but he hadn’t done an analysis.

“Would you be able to provide one?” Nazarian asked.

“It would cost money to do that as well,” Gerard said.

Nazarian glanced down at his notes and said, as if he couldn’t believe his own words:

“The home was inexplicably built without a full-service kitchen.”

That’s when Gerard explained that the feds were supposed to provide food service but backed out because of “problems with budget cycles” not lining up. So the state was just now planning to build its own kitchen, which will require clearance from two state licensing agencies, among other challenges.

“It’s not so simple to just say OK now let’s just build a kitchen,” Gerard said.

Yes it is. Watch.

Let’s just build a kitchen.

Cut the red tape, quit the mumbo jumbo and call Schwarzenegger back in to beat somebody up if necessary.

In the video of the committee hearing, Assemblyman Tom Daly (D-Anaheim) looked like his eyes might cross when the CalVet guy testified that the kitchen got nixed because the state and federal budget cycles didn’t line up.

“I’ve dealt with bureaucracies for 25 years, and normally ... when someone makes a decision, there’s someone above that person who can override it,” said Daly, who wondered whether anyone had challenged the feds to stick to their agreement.

Daly called the broken agreement stunning, and he seemed personally offended by the kitchen-building timetable.

“It’s embarrassing,” he said.

Since that meeting, according to Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica), the state has freed up about $770,000 to “fast-track” the kitchen and possibly get it done six months earlier than spring of 2016. But as Bloom pointed out, the voter-approved bonds for this and other veterans homes in California were approved in 2000.

“Here we are 14 years later,” Bloom said, “with a building half full and chronic needs in the veteran community unmet.”

Not to mention the long-running controversy over the surrounding VA campus being used for commercial enterprise, even though the land was deeded for the housing of veterans.

“My understanding is that the earliest all of the beds would be filled would be by 2016,” said Bloom, “but one could easily see that being drawn out further.”

Yes, one could.

But I’ve got a kitchen guy who could jump in right away, and he’d have this thing knocked out in time for Thanksgiving.