VA CAMPUS — City Councilmember Bobby Shriver and a team of attorneys filed a lawsuit Wednesday accusing the federal government of misusing a 390-acre plot of land in West Los Angeles that was donated some 130 years ago to house veterans who need care after traumatic military experiences.
The suit alleges that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs leased much of the property at its facility to private entities, instead of using it for veterans’ permanent supportive housing.
It was being filed by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California, Shriver, Harvard Law Professor Larry Tribe and the Munger, Tolles & Olson law firm.
They accused the department of breach of fiduciary duty and were seeking an injunction forcing the department to use the property for the housing and care of wounded vets, among other demands.
The VA provides health care to veterans, but doesn’t reach the mentally-disabled veterans who are suffering, and dying, on the streets, Shriver said.
“The real crux is that homeless veterans and mentally-challenged homeless veterans have not been able to access services because they have not been housed,” Shriver said.
The suit specifies four plaintiffs — three Iraq veterans and a woman who was raped while serving in the Army — who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and other ailments.
According to the nonprofit New Directions, which operates out of the West Los Angeles VA building, there are an estimated 8,0000 homeless veterans on the streets of Los Angeles, which account for 11 percent of all homeless veterans nationwide.
“We bring suit today to provide these veterans the permanent supportive housing they must have to access the medical and psychiatric services to which they are lawfully entitled,” ACLU lawyer Mark Rosenbaum said in a statement. “The VA could quite literally end veteran homelessness in Los Angeles if this land were used as it was intended.”
The suit names VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System director Donna M. Better as defendants.
VA Press Secretary Josh Taylor wrote in a statement that Shinseki pledged to end veteran homelessness by 2015, and has already made substantial progress to that end.
“Two years ago, there were approximately 131,000 homeless veterans on any given night,” Taylor wrote. “Today, we estimate there are about 76,000 homeless veterans.”
In 2011, the VA put $4.3 billion toward helping homeless veterans, and it hopes to increase that investment to $4.9 billion in 2012.
Nothing in the statement addressed the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges that the 387-acre parcel at what is now the VA’s West Los Angeles Medical Center & Community Living Center campus was deeded to the government by a private owner in 1888 in order to provide housing for disabled war veterans.
It said the land was used for that purpose until the 1960s and 1970s, when the VA stopped accepting new residents and allowed buildings that had provided permanent housing to fall into disrepair or be used for other purposes.
While the property hosts veterans’ medical clinics, some 110 acres have been leased to private users, such as a car rental company for vehicle storage, a hotel for laundry facilities and an energy company for an oil well, the suit claimed.
A theater operator stages shows in a campus auditorium that had been built for veterans, and a private school has its athletic fields on the property, according to the complaint.
Rosenbaum said that officials have never publicized how much the VA is receiving from the land deals, and what the proceeds are used for.
“There has been no public accounting of the behind-closed-doors negotiations or of the monies collected or where the money taken in went,” he said. “This is VA-gate.”
The suit is, in part, a move of frustration for Shriver and Tribe, who worked together on the issue while Tribe was the Obama administration’s Senior Counselor for Access to Justice, a position created to improve the ability of the poor and indigent to get legal defense.
Both have been working to end veteran homelessness from within the system, and both hit roadblocks formed out of “bureaucratic morass.”
“I was hoping that a lawsuit wouldn’t be necessary, and that the position I had fostering access to justice would enable me to move the VA in the direction of doing the right thing,” Tribe said. “Obviously, I was overestimating the degree to which rhetoric could ultimately deliver results.”
The lawsuit brings together unlikely bedfellows.
The ACLU and Munger, Tolles & Olson joined together in July 2009 to sue City Hall for a moratorium on arresting homeless caught sleeping outside.
That suit was settled in 2010. City Hall said at the time that there was no financial penalty of any kind and no change in any city law as a result of the lawsuit.
Associated Press contributed to this report