Last Nov. 1, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department teamed up to move roughly 40 homeless veterans living along a sidewalk to the property of the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs campus, right next to their former encampment known as Veterans Row.
At the time, VA Secretary Denis McDonough vowed to house another 500 homeless vets in the city by Dec. 31. The department succeeded, finding shelter for 667 veterans in a city with more than 3,600 homeless vets -- roughly 10% of the country's entire population of homeless former service members.
"Every once in a while, you run across these phrases in the English language that shouldn't really exist. I think one of those phrases is 'homeless veteran,'" McDonough said in a November news conference. "As long as I'm here, I'm going to do everything I possibly can to get them into houses."
But after years of delays, advocates are questioning whether the VA is committed to finding a solution to the homelessness problem, and raised concerns about the use of the department's large plot of land in Los Angeles. Sections of that property are currently being leased by a local private school and university, and some of the land would be earmarked for development as part of the VA's new framework to combat homelessness in the area.
On Friday, the VA unveiled what it has called the Master Plan for the West LA VA campus, a road map for ensuring that all homeless veterans in the area have permanent shelter and access to services such as VA health care, benefits and support programs.
Building on a draft unveiled in 2016, the Master Plan 2022 calls for constructing roughly 1,000 housing units in the next six years, with the intention eventually to have 1,200.
It also calls for constructing a town square; buildings that will provide amenities for veterans, such as a wellness center with career and support services; and parking lots, walking trails and bike lanes.
In this new village, formerly homeless veterans will have access to mental and physical health care and numerous services, according to VA officials, who added that the initiative could be a model for other cities.
"LA is the epicenter of homelessness, and as LA goes, the whole nation goes," said Keith Harris, VA's senior executive homelessness agent for greater Los Angeles, during a press call Friday. "Los Angeles has ... alarmingly nearly one-fifth of all unsheltered homeless veterans [in the country]. So we're committed to dramatically reducing these numbers and providing these veterans with a place to call home."
Yet veterans and advocacy groups are not happy with the overall plan, which they say ignored input from veterans and amounts to improper use of what originally was 700 acres, donated in 1887 to be "permanently maintained as a National Home for disabled veterans, particularly unemployed veterans."
In a three-page letter issued Friday, Dick Southern, director of the Vietnam Veterans of America chapter in the region, called the master plan a community plan that would convert the land to public parks, thoroughfares, mixed-use affordable housing, commercial retail and four subway stations, in addition to providing space for pharmacological research centers and entertainment venues -- "all while indefinitely delaying the housing of disabled Veterans dying throughout Los Angeles' finest neighborhoods."
"Vietnam Veterans of America has never officially supported any master or community plan to privately redevelop the [West LA] VA Soldiers Home," Southern wrote, referring to the acreage's original name.
Currently, on those acres left to house veterans, a few hundred elderly vets live in the veterans home run by the state of California, while the federal government leases 10 acres of the property to UCLA for a baseball field; a company drills for oil on the land; and 22 acres are leased to a private school that has built a sports complex, according to a report earlier this month from CNN.
"It's really kind of disgusting to see," Rob Reynolds, an Iraq War veteran who now advocates for homeless veterans in LA, told CNN. "When you see people who raise their right hand to serve our country sleeping and dying on the street, and you have one of the most elite private schools in the country charging $40,000 per year per student, and they have immaculate amenities and the veterans are living in squalor, it just doesn't make any sense."
The VA maintains that the master plan will provide homeless veterans with the services and shelter they need through partnerships with developers as well as lease agreements, which help cover the cost.
Dr. Steven Braverman, director of the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, said on Friday's call with reporters that, by law, the VA is not authorized to build housing "unless it is specifically tied to a treatment program" and must "rely on principal developers and community assets."
A reporter on the call asked VA officials to cite the law, but they were unable to do so, adding only that in the 1950s, a Veterans Home program was "canceled by Congress and the only authorizations for use of funding was housing in support of direct care activities."
As officials moved to end the call after the question, advocate Ryan Thompson, with the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers Coalition, jumped in to accuse the VA of lying.
"I'm absolutely disgusted, as are so many veterans and members of the public that you continuously lie about laws that do not exist," Thompson said.
Earlier in the press conference, Braverman agreed that the optics of beautiful facilities like the private Brentwood school and the UCLA field on a property where veterans were promised housing has a "real and visceral impact on veterans and advocates," but, he added, "the lease holders are not the reason we haven't produced housing."
"If we could solve obstacles to housing," Braverman said, referring to delays the VA has faced with the project, including protracted environmental impact studies, historical preservation reviews, abatement requirements and developer funding challenges, "we could build all the units we've promised without the leases coming into play."
VA officials said that, by the end of 2022, the area will have 235 "permanent housing beds" for veterans and another 315 by the end of 2024.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.