WEST L.A. — A federal judge denied most of a motion by Department of Justice attorneys seeking to dismiss a lawsuit filed against the Veterans Administration that would require that the VA provide disabled homeless veterans access to mental health and other services.
The decision, which came down Friday, moved forward claims filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and a veritable stable of big name attorneys and law professors that the Department of Veterans Affairs has an obligation to ensure that homeless individuals with severe mental disabilities can get access to mental health services.
The group has been pushing for access at the West Los Angeles VA campus, which they also claim has been wrongly leased to private tenants rather than set up to provide care to homeless vets.
“Judge (James) Otero’s ruling denying the VA’s motion to dismiss marks the first time in the nation’s history that a federal court has held the VA responsible for assuring that severely mentally disabled veterans have access to housing and services … they require to heal the wounds of war,” said Mark Rosenbaum, chief council for the ACLU of Southern California, in a press release.
The Department of Justice refused to comment for this article.
Otero did dismiss three of the plaintiff’s six claims outright, particularly allegations that the VA violated a charitable trust by allowing private tenants access to the West L.A. campus in spite of the wishes of the family that donated the land to the federal government.
The decision came down after attempts at mediation between the government and ACLU fell apart early last week.
Mediation was seen as a way to wrap the lawsuit up quickly, but the government seemed fixated on voucher-based housing programs that don’t come with mental health support, said David Sapp, an attorney with the ACLU.
“Those are good programs, and we’re happy that the government is expanding them, but they’re totally unresponsive to the needs of the subset of disabled vets that we’re talking about here,” Sapp said last week.
The government also recently released $20 million to rehab building 209, a building on the West L.A. campus that is said to be for permanent supportive housing of the type the lawsuit is seeking.
That’s great, Sapp said, but there needs to be more.
“We’re looking for a response that is commensurate with the need,” he said. “No one is going to criticize 50 units of permanent supportive housing, but it’s not going to resolve the issue.”
The issue, in the eyes of the plaintiffs, is that there are thousands of homeless veterans on the streets of Los Angeles, many of whom have severe mental disabilities that prevent them from seeking help on their own.
Permanent supportive housing could solve that by giving disabled veterans a place to live that comes backed up with intensive mental health services.
However, the ACLU alleges that the VA has instead chosen to rent out space to movie theaters, the Brentwood School, hotel laundry facilities, the South Coast Air Quality Management District and the UCLA baseball program.
Now that mediation has failed, the attorneys are hoping to speed up the process and get the matter to trial as early as June with an accelerated process of exchanging information and going through discovery.
It’s about urgency, Sapp said.
“Everyone knows this, but this just makes it concrete that people’s lives are hanging in the balance. An approach that strings this out and delays resolution is unacceptable,” Sapp said.