Sen. Dianne Feinstein said Thursday she would introduce legislation to move veterans from the county’s alleyways and sidewalk shantytowns onto the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ long-contested West Los Angeles campus.
Speaking at a VA building that was recently refurbished for homeless housing, Feinstein said the Los Angeles Homeless Veterans Leasing Act of 2015 will remove a legal barrier to opening the sprawling campus to temporary and permanent housing, recreational facilities and job training for homeless veterans.
“For a long time it’s been our dream to see this campus as housing for homeless veterans,” said Feinstein, who promised to put the bill forward on Tuesday. “I strongly believe with this bill we will finally turn the corner.”
A loud argument erupted outside the news conference when a security guard blocked a veterans advocate and newsletter editor from entering.
Outside, Robert Rosebrock and two of his colleagues said they oppose Feinstein’s legislation, which they believe will permit leaseholders, including UCLA and the private Brentwood School, to remain on the 386-acre property.
As part of a legal settlement with civil rights lawyers reached this year, the VA promised to end veteran homelessness in the greater Los Angeles region this year and to arrange “exit strategies” for commercial leaseholders, including a hotel laundry, movie storage lot and parking service.
But the bill, which authorizes a lease for “an institution of the State of California that has had a medical affiliation with the [Veterans Affairs] Department at the campus,” seemingly earmarks UCLA for retention, the advocates said.
“They’re getting a pay-for-play deal dirt cheap,” said John Aaron, one of the veterans advocates.
Vince Kane, special assistant to Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald, said the bill “does not guarantee UCLA anything any different than anyone else.” The VA is negotiating with leaseholders including UCLA, which has long offered treatment and medical research to benefit veterans, Kane said.
“No decisions have been made,” he told reporters.
McDonald has the final word on whether leaseholders are a “veteran-centric” use, he said. A land-use master plan for the property will be released Oct. 16, he added.
Feinstein’s bill, co-authored by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), authorizes public-private partnerships to develop housing and services that “principally benefit veterans and their families” through “enhanced-use leases.”
The services, the bill says, must promote health, nutrition and “spiritual wellness,” education, vocational training, child care, transportation and physical and social recreation. The leases have been used to develop housing at VA properties across the country, including the parcel in North Hills.
Aaron and Rosebrock said the VA and Congress should build housing themselves, instead of cutting developers in on lucrative building contracts.
Feinstein’s appearance came amid several setbacks in the VA’s drive to end greater Los Angeles’ long reign as the nation’s homeless-veteran capital. Mayor Eric Garcetti last week backed off his pledge to get every homeless veteran off city streets by the end of the year, and the VA conceded its campaign got off to a slow start.
In a phone interview, Kane said the agency had revamped leadership and picked up the pace of engaging and housing homeless veterans. He said the VA remains committed to meeting the year-end goal but added that the deadline has been “misunderstood.”
“The goal is to bring men and women home, and we set a date to increase the urgency and focus,” said Kane, who added that the VA has housed 2,700 homeless veterans in the last year, including 300 in July.
“We do expect to have homeless veterans, and we’ll have teams on the streets up to Dec. 31 and after Dec. 31,” he told the news conference. “The resolve of the providers and the agency has never been stronger.”