WESTWOOD — Homeless veterans won a significant battle Thursday when a federal judge ruled in their favor, saying the Department of Veterans Affairs violated the law when it leased portions of its sprawling West Los Angeles campus to businesses and organizations, including UCLA and Twentieth Century Fox, for purposes unrelated to providing medical care or treatment for homeless and disabled vets.

The ruling comes more than two years after the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, and other groups, filed suit against the VA on behalf of homeless and disabled vets, who were often sleeping outside the gates of the campus.

There are roughly 6,000 homeless vets in L.A. County, the largest such population in the country, and advocates have been for years demanding the federal government commit more funding to helping them get off the streets and receive treatment for mental disorders and addiction. That includes using the VA campus to build supportive housing.

“[Thursday’s] order is a huge victory, but only the first step. Now, the VA must actually use the land to provide the services our military heroes so desperately need,” said John Ulin, a partner at Arnold & Porter, which joined the ACLU in filing suit. “We are past the 50-yard line, but will continue our efforts until our chronically homeless veterans get the housing and services they have earned.”

Federal Judge S. James Otero found that federal statutes governing the use of VA property unambiguously prohibit the VA from entering into land-use agreements with private parties on the campus unless the agreements are directly related to providing medical care or related services to veterans.

The leases voided by the order cover nearly one quarter of the 400-acre property, which was originally deeded in 1888 to the predecessor to the VA for the exclusive purpose of providing a home for disabled vets. The order did not affect two land-use agreements challenged in the suit that had expired or lapsed, representatives from the ACLU said.

Officials with the VA and the Department of Justice declined to comment.

President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki have pledged to end homelessness among the nation’s veterans by 2015. As part of that effort, officials recently announced that vacant beds at the VA campus in West L.A. would be filled by homeless vets on waiting lists for state-funded nursing home care, which also includes expanded rental housing vouchers and medical outreach teams.

Congressman Henry Waxman, D-Santa Monica, has been working to help secure those vouchers and other commitments from the VA. In March, he fired off a letter demanding housing for veterans at the West L.A. campus be a priority and that the property be preserved and not sold off to private developers.

He called Thursday’s court decision a “triumph” but said more needs to be done.

“Now is the time to redouble our commitment to address the severe needs of homeless veterans in our community,” he said.

In addition to the housing vouchers, the VA has also pledged to set up a one-stop service center and to seek private funding partners to renovate two buildings at the West L.A. campus, a plan that has been lingering for years and has become a source of frustration for many involved. (Construction on another building to provide beds for 65 veterans is underway and is expected to be completed in July 2014.)

Former Santa Monica Mayor Bobby Shriver is one of them. He has been lobbying power brokers in Washington, D.C. for years to dedicate more funding to providing housing for homeless vets. News of the judge’s ruling did nothing to temper his anger at the slow pace of progress and he called on elected officials to use their power and influence to create change.

“Finally the vets beat the administration who has failed them. Finally they have won,” Shriver said. “This increases pressure on them to create housing, which they know how to do and I hope they do it forthright.

“Vets have been dying in dumpsters while these people are spending money wherever they’ve been spending it,” Shriver said, referencing the VA’s inability to prove that the money generated from the private lease agreements was going toward treatment and housing for veterans. “They have plenty of money already. They should be building housing.”

The nine voided agreements provided for the following uses of the VA property: a 20-acre parcel for Brentwood private school’s athletic complex; a laundry processing facility for nearby luxury hotels; the UCLA baseball stadium and facilities; Fox studio production storage facilities; exclusive rights for a community group to host events on a 15-acre parcel; practice fields for a private soccer club; parking lots for surrounding businesses; and a farmers’ market.

Jackie Robinson Stadium is home to the UCLA Bruins baseball team and has been for nearly 50 years. Officials at the university said they were “disappointed” by the ruling and defended their use of the property, saying they furnish veterans with free admission to regular season home games and provide a home field for American Legion baseball teams.

“UCLA has a strong commitment to veterans, as evidenced by programs like Operation Mend, which provides reconstructive surgery to U.S. military personnel injured and disfigured in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Nathanson Family Resilience Center, which provides an array of programs for military families facing the challenges of deployment and reintegration,” read a statement from UCLA.

The university will continue working with those involved to possibly continue their partnership with the VA.

“[T]he university plans to do everything possible to make sure that our NCAA championship baseball team can continue playing in Jackie Robinson Stadium,” the statement read.

The judge’s ruling gives the VA six months to file an appeal before any action can be taken regarding the lease agreements.

 

kevinh@smdp.com

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