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Homeless vets sue VA over lack of housing on West LA campus

"The phrase 'homeless veteran' should be an American oxymoron," the veterans' attorney said.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — Fourteen homeless veterans sued the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs late Tuesday night over the lack of housing on the agency's flagship campus in West Los Angeles.

The walled complex takes up 388 acres of land donated to the VA in 1887 to be a "soldier's home," a place for wounded veterans to live. But the lush, sprawling campus, which includes a large hospital for veterans, offers little in the way of permanent housing structures for veterans in need.

"There are today more than 100 buildings on the WLA campus, many vacant, closed or underutilized, as well as acres of available land," the veterans say in their complaint. "In contrast to what once existed and was intended, virtually no permanent housing is available to veterans with disabilities on the WLA campus."

The campus does offer housing for a number of VA administrators. The VA has also leased pieces of its land to a variety of organizations, including to UCLA for a baseball field, an expensive private school and an oil drilling operation.

The federal lawsuit asks for an end to those leases which don't serve veterans, and for the VA to build 1,200 units of housing on the campus within five years. The veterans also want the VA ordered to provide 3,500 units of interim housing (which could simply be vouchers to rent already constructed apartments) near the campus within six months.

"The phrase 'homeless veteran' should be an American oxymoron," said Mark Rosenbaum, an attorney at Public Counsel, at a teleconference Wednesday. "With budget of more than $260 billion, the VA should find this eminently doable."

Terrence Hayes, press secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said in a written statement, "While we cannot comment on ongoing litigation, we at VA promise that we will not rest until every veteran has a good, safe, stable home in this country they fought to defend.” He also noted that the VA "has provided more than 950 permanent housing placements to LA veterans during this calendar year" and "made available more than 130 new units of veteran housing in the Los Angeles community this year, with 700 more expected in 2023."

Los Angeles has nearly 3,500 unhoused veterans, roughly 10% of the nation's total.

"Our veterans are sleeping and dying on the streets of Los Angeles," said Rob Reynolds, an Iraqi war veteran and advocate. "I’ve seen more veterans die on the street than in the war in Iraq."

This is not the first time the VA has been sued over its lack of housing on the West LA campus. A 2011 lawsuit yielded a settlement four years later, in which the VA agreed to build 1,200 units of permanent supportive housing for veterans on the campus; 770 of those were supposed to be completed by this year.

"More than 7.5 years after the settlement, the VA has not constructed a single new unit of permanent supportive housing pursuant to the settlement agreement," the veterans say in Tuesday's lawsuit, "[o]ther than 55 housing units started before the agreement and completed in May 2017."

When asked why the VA has been so obstinate in its refusal to build housing on its campus, Rosenbaum, the attorney, replied, "Why? I don’t think there’s any question. Because they don’t care. Because they regard these individuals as disposable."

During the pandemic, a large encampment sprang up on the outskirts of the West LA VA campus. Dubbed "Veteran's Row," it came to comprise dozens of large camping tents, most adorned with American flags. The encampment was both a supportive community and a living protest of the VA's refusal to provide housing. The encampment became the subject of much news coverage, especially when one homeless vet who lived there was stabbed to death — the second homicide there in just six months.

Veteran's Row was finally cleared in November 2021. More than 100 veterans were allowed to move into so-called "tiny homes" — small, inexpensive structures — on the campus, but veterans have complained that the homes are little better than tents. In September, a fire destroyed 11 of the shelters and damaged four others.

Rosenbaum said he hopes the lawsuit leads to a settlement with the Biden administration.

"Our hope that this lawsuit never sees the inside of a courtroom," he said. "Our hope is that the president does what’s legally and ethically required."

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