Documentarian Bill Dumas is facing that question now over his newest release, “Duty, Honor, Country, Betrayal,” a film narrated by actor and activist Ed Asner that looks into the decade-long conflict between the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and those it is meant to serve over the use of land at the VA’s sprawling, scenic campus in West Los Angeles.
Although nearly every filmmaker begins a project with the intention that it accrue some kind of success or acclaim, Dumas’ film is about more than filled theater seats and concession sales. He and those who took part in its creation believe it could save lives.
For the past three years, Dumas has been following the struggles of engaged citizens and homeless veterans as they try to tell the story of the West L.A. VA campus, a 387-acre plot of land home to public parks and commercial laundry facilities, but not many homeless veterans.
The VA itself reports that 8,000 veterans live on the streets of Los Angeles, the highest concentration of homeless veterans in the United States.
The government touts figures showing that number has dropped 22 percent in 2012, but activists like Santa Monica’s own Bobby Shriver, a former Santa Monica mayor, feel that not enough is being done to support veterans, many of whom are mentally ill and need more support than access to medical prescriptions.
Dumas got hooked by Bob Rosebrock, a spunky 70-year-old who organizes protests outside of the VA campus at Wilshire and San Vicente boulevards every Sunday, and has done so for the last four years.
Although the two would eventually part ways over differences in vision for the documentary, Rosebrock made crucial introductions that got the film going, and allowed Dumas to see the complex web of relationships that he feels has shut the VA’s door to homeless veterans for years.
The West L.A. VA campus is in Brentwood, one of the wealthiest communities in Los Angeles County.
Senator John P. Jones and Arcadia B. de Baker donated 300 acres of property in 1888 to the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, an organization created by Congress in 1865, for the purpose of creating a permanent home for veterans at the site.
According to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, the property was used to house over 1,000 veterans until the 1960s and 1970s when it appears that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs — an evolution of the National Home — stopped accepting new residents.
Since, the property has been used primarily for medical care and for leases by the VA to private, for-profit and nonprofit organizations, like a commercial laundry business that services the Marriott hotel chain or a private school that built sports facilities on the site.
Buildings once used to house veterans have fallen into disrepair, the documentary states, and Brentwood community members have worked hard to create a public park on the property in the name of veterans, but seem less willing to have them as neighbors.
“They don’t want … veterans there,” said John Keaveney, the founder of the nonprofit New Directions, which provides services to homeless veterans. Keaveney is currently not on the staff or Board of Directors of New Directions.
It means that the VA is an excellent place for veterans to get medical care, but not much else, said Terence Lyons, a Vietnam-era veteran who appears in the documentary and helps produce the Strawberry Gazette, a publication dedicated to documenting the VA response to homeless veterans.
“One of my principal differences with the VA is that they’ve turned the whole place into a medical care facility,” Lyons said Friday. “Under the deed of 1888, it was given to be a home for veterans. The VA simply disavows any responsibility for providing any of the services or aspects of home other than medical care.”
That’s a problem for people like George Billingslea, a homeless veteran and former Marine featured in the documentary.
In one scene, Billingslea struggles with over 20 bottles of prescription medications given to him by the VA, each stored in the shopping cart that he uses to collect bottles and cans to feed himself and help his mother and grandson.
The VA is making progress on the homeless front, as evidenced by the reduction of homeless veterans on the street and the recent groundbreaking at Building 209, which is expected to house 65 of the most-needy veterans and provide them access to services on the campus.
There are also plans to rehabilitate two more buildings — 205 and 208, respectively — and ramp up efforts of direct intervention, moving homeless veterans into apartments and using transitional housing to meet the nationwide goal of ending veteran homelessness by 2015, said Bill Daniels, chief of Mental Health at the VA of Greater Los Angeles Heath Care System.
“We continue to work diligently with the community to expand all areas of service through various methods including outreach with our community partners. All of our long-term housing is geared toward having the veterans live in the community. This is what our veterans have told us; this is what our veterans like,” Daniels said.
Many activists believe that changes have only come because of the pressure applied to the government agency through protests, the very public ACLU lawsuit and things like Dumas’ documentary. Otherwise, the history of the West L.A. VA campus remains a mystery to most, Dumas said.
“In fact most people don’t even know what that is,” he said. “They say, ‘Oh, I’ve driven by that place on Wilshire.’ They aren’t even aware of the VA property, let alone the issues and land use.”
To encourage real progress at the site, that has to change.
Dumas is a one-man-band with his low-definition Sony camera, a hardy piece of equipment that has served him as he tailed Ron Paul through his unsuccessful presidential bid and now through a hike in the Hollywood Hills with nonprofit volunteers to meet the Godfather, a vet in the film who has lived above the Hollywood Bowl with his dog for the past 16 years.
He finished editing the footage roughly six months ago, but wasn’t able to premiere the piece until Feb. 1 at Beyond Baroque, an independent arts center in Venice that supports literary and cultural production and community building.
There just wasn’t the money to do it, Dumas said, and that means that knowledge of the issue remains relegated to a committed few, unless he finds other ways to get the documentary out to the public.
He’s in the process of burning DVDs for people to provide funding for the project, and is considering putting the film up on Vimeo or another streaming site to try to get it out to a wider audience.
Lyons participated in a panel discussion after the Beyond Baroque premiere. People seemed genuinely concerned by the issues raised, and asked what they could do about it, Lyons said.
“The other reaction from the panel was that we don’t have a lot of political power or money. If the other guys have the power and the money, the only way to counter that is with some sort of groundswell of public opinion involving large numbers of people if you can’t muster the dollars,” Lyons said. “That again goes back to what can we do to spread the word, and get as much exposure for the film and for other methods of publicizing the problem.”
To learn more about the film, visit www.billdumas.com