- Written by Katharine Russ
14 Jun 2011
Russ Report - Joined by the ACLU and claiming that the Department of Veterans Affairs has failed them homeless vets took on the government they fought to protect last week.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), along with several other attorneys, filed the first-of-its-kind lawsuit against Eric Shinseki, Secretary, Department of Veterans Affairs and Donna M. Beitner, Director- VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System. (ACLU release, see below)
The suit was filed on behalf of the Viet Nam Veterans of America, several homeless veterans and Carolina Winston Barrie, whose ancestor, Arcadia B. de Baker, and Senator John P. Jones donated 387 acres of land to what is now the Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System (WLAVA).
The suit contends, among other things, that the WLAVA used land through sharing agreements and enhance-use leases illegally and denied veterans a “permanent home” to which they could go to begin their recovery.
The filing claims that the VA, as the successor to the National Home, holds the donated land only in the capacity as a trustee, with a legally imposed fiduciary duty to permanently use the donated land expressly for that purpose.
In January, the ACLU, joined by a host of Veterans Service Organizations (VSO), the Annenberg Foundation, a descendant of Arcadia B. de Baker and Senator John P. Jones and hundreds of stakeholders, and called for an investigation into the breach of trust and the violation of the fiduciary duty by the VA.
Letters were sent to President Barack Obama, Congressman Henry Waxman, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Senator Barbara Boxer and U.S. Dept. Veterans Affairs- Secretary Eric Shinseki. Not one person responded to these letters.
In his speech of June 8, Steve Mackey, President of the Vietnam Veterans of America, CA State Council, said, “I would like to make clear that this lawsuit is a last resort. We have spent years working to persuade the Federal Government, and the VA in particular, to provide the services and accommodations that our disabled and homeless brothers and sisters need.”
On multiple occasions, in past years, these misuse-of-land issues have been raised before the VA.
Robert M. Handy and Sanford D. Cook, Chair and Vice Chair of Veterans United For Truth, wrote in their joint letter to Shinseki, “The greatest commitment, after 13 years of deep contemplation, is that there are “Projects Under Consideration” and there is a “potential” for renovation and construction.
“We had expected far more after 13 years. This is why we call it an embarrassment—it is an embarrassment to us as citizens, veterans, and taxpayers that after all this it is “a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
In a letter dated November 3, 2006 from Congressman Henry A. Waxman to Mr. Charles Dorman, then Director of the WLAVA, Waxman emphasized that “Direct benefits to veterans must be the highest priority for the WLA VA campus” and questioned the non-veteran uses of the campus.
Promises made to veterans were short-stepped for years and put on the back burner catastrophically leaving homeless veterans to fend for themselves.
In June 2010, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein focused her attention on Building 209 on the WLA VA campus to which the VA committed $20 million for conversion into a homeless facility which might have been used to house 80 veterans- a building that in 2008, the VA said would require $7.2 million to repair. That project remains unfunded.
Lauren Bon, Director of the Metabolic Studio, a direct charitable activity of the Annenberg Foundation, authored the position paper titled Preserving a Home for Veterans (January 2011) that provided the framework outlining the misuse of land at the WLAVA.
Bon and her team also ran the widely acclaimed, fully funded and compensated work therapy (CWT) program for veterans, known as Strawberry Flag, for over a year on the WLAVA campus. The work was allowed under a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) agreement with Asset management, Beitner who is a defendant in the lawsuit, and the Metabolic Studio and was extended due to its popularity with both clinicians and veterans.
Despite the success and many benefits it offered to veterans, Beiter abruptly pulled the plug on the Strawberry Flag project in October 2010, putting several disabled veterans out of work. When her project was abruptly stopped, Bon concentrated her efforts on the position paper that became the basis of the ACLU’s lawsuit.
She said, “The answer is in the hornet’s nest of issues that buzz around land use here. This property is very valuable, as are the private residences surrounding the WLAVA. The growing problem of veteran homelessness, plus the public perception of veterans as unstable, has made them “undesirables” on property that is held in trust for their very benefit. We need to reconnect the 380 acres in question to the notion of “home”. We have to agree on that intention. This is a crucial next step in moving toward the reintegration of veterans in society.”
The list of misuse examples is lengthy.
Professor Gary Blassi, UCLA Law School, has worked as an advocate and researcher on issues of homelessness since 1983 and admits that for a long time no one understood how to help the homeless who suffered from severe and chronic mental disorders.
Blassi explained, “We built a shelter- transitional housing and permanent housing system that effectively worked to exclude them. We said to the chronically homeless people, ‘First straighten yourself out, reduce your symptoms and deal with your addiction if you have one, and then we’ll help you’.”
Decades of research has confirmed that stable, supportive and permanent housing is critical and according to Blassi, is significantly less costly to tax payers when the chronically homeless are able to live in permanent housing and utilize health care services properly.
Blassi said, “The shorthand terminology is often called the ‘Housing First’ model of using what is called ‘Permanent Supportive Housing.’ We have some excellent examples right here in Los Angeles- in skid row- but not in Brentwood.”
One of the Plaintiffs, a homeless man who sleeps on the streets of LA and who suffers from severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) provided a written comment detailing his reasons for joining the suit. He spoke about comrades, women and children who he saw shot dead or bombed in the crossfire, the constant fire and mortars exploding around them, and death in horribly unimaginable ways.
“It’s been very hard for me to adjust to life back home. When I go to sleep, I have nightmares and thoughts of committing suicide, he recalled. “Because I have been homeless and because of my PTSD,” he said, “getting services from the VA has been impossible. The only way for me to get to the VA is public transportation. Being on a crowded bus or train triggers my PTSD. It has been extremely difficult for me to make it to my appointments and I arrive at the VA stressed and anxious- which makes my condition worse.”
Another Plaintiff, named only as Jane Doe, was the victim of several sexual assaults during her time in the Army. Doe suffers from PTSD secondary to military sexual trauma. She suffers from frequent flashbacks and nightmares, cannot secure or maintain a job because of her mental disabilities and has been homeless for many years.
Robert Rosebrock, Director- Old Veteran’s Guard and fellow veterans have protested the use of land for a public park every Sunday, for years. Rosebrock was hassled and cited by police for his peaceful protests and ultimately sued the VA for violation of his first amendment rights. He said, “Veterans in Los Angeles have been exiled and dispossessed from their rightful Home and are forced to survive, hungry and homeless, on the dangerous streets of Los Angeles while the very people who have exiled them, live in multi-million dollar mansions.”
There are 100 buildings on the WLAVA property that remain vacant, in disrepair or underutilized while veterans sleep on the streets. Over 110 acres are off limits to the homeless- but not to private enterprises that lease the land from the VA. Veterans have simply asked for a permanent home that would, in addition to providing stable housing, give them access to all the benefits they were promised when they agreed to go to war and risk their lives to keep America free.
In 2008, Congressman Bob Filner, Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, appeared on National television and explained that the VA was not prepared for the aftermath of the war. “When the President says, ‘Support troops, support the troops,’ unfortunately, when they come home many of them are on their own. We’ve had incidents, for example, of PTSD team leaders telling their people, ‘Stop diagnosing PTSD. We can’t afford it. It costs too much. Diagnose something else.’ That is a crime, and that’s been committed by our own VA.”
“If the VA wants to cover up, they can cover up. We’ve had shredding of documents reported for claims. We’ve had backdating of things. We’ve had covering up suicide statistics, and we say, ‘Fire those people,’ but we don’t have the authority to fire them, only the executive branch does.”
In 2009, Eric Shinseki said, “Those who have served this nation as veterans should never find themselves on the streets, living without care and without hope.”
That same year, President Obama said, “These heroes have a home. It’s the country they served, the United States of America, and until we reach a day when not a single veteran sleeps on our nation’s streets our work remains unfinished.”
This political “lip service” has been served upon the American people throughout four Presidents who shamefully allowed the VA to siphon land and cater to private enterprises while pushing our “undesirable” veterans into the streets.
Mark Rosenbaum, Attorney for the ACLU said, “This WLAVA Campus was, infact, donated in 1888 to the predecessor agency of the Dept. of Veterans Affairs to be a permanent soldier’s home for disabled war veterans and functioned in precisely that way for 80 years until the Vietnam War era. But since that time, as a result of the most disreputable land deals in our nation’s history, structures and land dedicated for veterans housing have been turned over to commercial entrepreneurs and operations that have nothing to do with serving veterans.
This suit calls upon our Leaders to cease the Un-American treatment of our Veterans and Service members by housing and caring for every severely mentally disabled veteran today.”
“That,” he said, “would be a commitment to wrap our flag around.”
Tags: ACLU, vets, Veterans Administration, West LA VA, homeless, disabled veterans
Vol 9 Issue 47
Pub: June 14, 2011
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
June 8, 2011
Contact: Jason Howe or Diana Rubio, ACLU of Southern California, 213.977.5252
qMelissa Tyner, Inner City Law Center, 213.891.2880
VA Facility in West Los Angeles Abandons Homeless Veterans
Lawsuit Challenges VA’s Misuse of Land Given to House Injured Vets
(Los Angeles)- Four homeless veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other disabilities today sued Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki and the director of the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System for misusing the VA campus in West Los Angeles. They filed suit on behalf of hundreds of other severely disabled homeless veterans in the Los Angeles area. Vietnam Veterans of America joined the four individuals as plaintiff in the suit, which was filed in U.S District Court for the Central District of California.
The land on which the VA campus now sits was deeded to the United States in 1888 for the specific purpose of providing a home for disabled veterans, which it did for nearly 80 years. But the VA has eliminated permanent housing for disabled veterans, many of whom now literally sleep outside its walls, and it now leases portions of the property to private companies, such as a rental car business and Sodexho Marriott for a laundry facility. The VA has not publicly disclosed how much it is being paid for these private deals, which now cover almost 30 percent of the 387-acre campus, or where the money from them is going.
“War can take a serious toll, both physical and emotional, and it is shameful when our wounded warriors return home and are left to live on our streets,” said former Adjutant General of the California National Guard, Maj. General Paul Monroe. “California has an incredible campus that was given to the U.S. government to permanently house our disabled vets. It’s past time we stopped renting it out to private companies and started using it to house and care for those who have sacrificed so much for our country.”
“If they can house Enterprise Rent-A-Car, they can house our homeless veterans,” said Mark Rosenbaum, Chief Counsel of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California. “This is VA-Gate, because the VA could quite literally end veteran homelessness in Los Angeles if this land were used as it was intended.”
The suit also contends that the VA’s benefits program discriminates against veterans with severe mental disabilities. A robust body of research has established that homeless individuals with severe mental disabilities cannot access necessary medical and mental services without stable living conditions combined with supportive treatment services. Although the VA has recognized the importance of such supportive housing for seriously disabled homeless veterans, it has refused to offer them to Plaintiffs and other disabled veterans in Los Angeles and around the country.
“This lawsuit exposes the truth of how the VA’s policies exclude veterans with serious mental disabilities,” said Melissa Tyner, a staff attorney with Inner City Law Center’s Homeless Veterans Project. “Rather than honoring their sacrifice, VA policies deny access to needed services. As a result, many veterans become homeless.”
Los Angeles is the capital of homeless veterans in the United States. There are an estimated 107,000 homeless veterans nationwide, and by conservative estimates 8,200 live in the Greater Los Angeles area.
“Four presidential administrations have continued to allow the injustice of encroaching on land deeded solely for the purpose of caring for our nation’s disabled veterans. This lawsuit gives us the opportunity to restore integrity to this bequest and allow many more homeless and disabled veterans to live out their years with dignity,” said John Rowan, National President, Vietnam Veterans of America.
“If our nation’s laws are enforced, soldiers who risked their lives on the battlefield won’t be condemned to live in dumpsters or under freeways while land donated to house them is used instead to house a rental car company and a laundry facility for luxury hotels,” said Laurence Tribe, the Carl M. Loeb University Professor and Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School and the nation’s preeminent constitutional scholar.
A descendant of the family that donated the land to the government is also a plaintiff in the suit. Plaintiffs and their attorneys are also calling for congressional hearings to investigate the misuse of the West Los Angeles Campus and the VA’s failure to ensure its benefits programs are accessible to seriously disabled veterans.
In addition to the lawsuit, the Plaintiffs and their attorneys are calling for congressional hearings to investigate the misuse of the West Los Angeles Campus and the VA’s failure to ensure its benefits programs are accessible to seriously disabled veterans. The misuse of the West Los Angeles campus is documented in detail in a Position Paper issued in January 2011 by the Metabolic Studio, a direct charitable activity of the Annenberg Foundation led by artist Lauren Bon, entitled “Preserving a Home for Veterans.”
“The missing link to ensure disabled veterans are helped is on-campus supportive housing. That is what this lawsuit hopes to remedy,” said Ron Olson, of Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP
Plaintiffs are represented by Laurence Tribe, a Harvard law professor; Ronald Olson, of Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP; Arnold & Porter LLP; Inner City Law Center; Gary Blasi, a UCLA law professor; Massey & Gail LLP; and the ACLU Foundation of Southern California.