Image courtesy VA
Image courtesy VA
Image courtesy VA

WEST L.A. — Local and federal officials will gather in West L.A. Friday to break ground on long-awaited renovations to a building that will provide therapeutic and supportive housing for chronically homeless veterans.

The site, located at the Veterans Administration’s West L.A. Medical Center, will include 55 units, 45 of which will be single occupancy. The remaining 10 will hold two veterans each.

It will be designed as a therapeutic residence for homeless vets whose mental health or other medical needs mean they need residential treatment in order to access appropriate medical care.

It will also accept residents for whom other programs at the VA haven’t worked, said Michi Riley, spokesperson for the Veterans Administration.

The therapies at the site are targeted to teach veterans social and independent living skills. They will also get job help, and eventually transition out of the facility to live on their own.

The building will include a multipurpose room, a dedicated women’s wing, administrative offices, a training kitchen and a specialized unit to help with medical conditions related to obesity.

There will be space for group therapy, training sessions and social gatherings.

The contractor that will upgrade and renovate the building was selected in December 2012, although the design began in October 2010, according to the VA.

Officials expect the work to finish in spring of 2014. Roughly $20 million is budgeted for the project.

“This renovation project builds on the VA’s progress toward ending veteran homelessness locally and across the country,” said Donna M. Beiter, director of the VA’s Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System.

The building has not come without its share of controversy.

In 2011, the American Civil Liberties Union and a host of private attorneys, including former Santa Monica City Councilmember Bobby Shriver, filed suit against the VA for allowing private companies to rent space at the West L.A. campus while homeless vets were out on the streets.

The lawsuit alleged that the 387-acre parcel was deeded to the government by a private owner in 1888 to provide housing for disabled war veterans.

According to the suit, the land was used for that purpose until the 1960s and 1970s, when the VA stopped accepting new residents and allowed the buildings that had provided housing to fall into disrepair or be used for other purposes, including leases to private users like a car rental company or hotel laundry facilities.

A federal judge decided last year that he did not have the jurisdiction to hear the piece of the case alleging the need for permanent supportive housing for vets and dismissed the claims on the deed-restricted use of the land in March, said David Sapp, an attorney with the ACLU of Southern California.

However, the piece of the suit that alleged that the private uses of the campus violated congressional restrictions was allowed to go forward. Sapp hopes to hear the judge’s motion on that soon.

Sapp is still pleased that the government is making progress on the building, although his enthusiasm was tempered.

“That’s great, but it’s about time,” Sapp said.

The VA talked about renovating the building for six years before the ACLU filed suit against the agency, and it still doesn’t get close to addressing the rampant problem of homelessness amongst veterans, Sapp said.

“This is a positive development, but it certainly does not solve the problem that we raised in this case about the widespread, broad need for these types of services,” Sapp said.

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