The VA and the neighbors in West L.A. have started helping homeless vets; when will Congress do its part?
The years-long tussle over land use at the Department of Veterans Affairs’ sprawling 388-acre West Los Angeles campus took an important step closer to being resolved Tuesday. Yet even as the department made real strides locally, the efforts to deliver more services to veterans on the campus remain hampered by inaction in Congress.
The VA announced agreements Tuesday with the Brentwood School and the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks over their leases on the West L.A. campus, settling the last thorny disputes over how non-veteran enterprises have been using the acreage.
Among other concessions, the private school will make its pool and other athletic facilities, which sit on 22 acres of VA land, available to veterans on a flexible schedule. The VA expects that it will serve, in particular, residents in the campus’ short-term housing program for veterans who are chronically homeless, aging, ill, or suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as female veterans.
The school has already done a pilot program this summer offering use of the facilities to vets, and it provided 120 scholarships to their children for a summer camp. In total, the school has committed to $1.7 million a year in funds and in-kind services. That’s a considerable and welcome increase from the $450,000 it was paying before.
The city, which oversees a 12-acre park on the campus, has agreed to reduce the size of the area set aside for dogs by about 50% and try to relocate it. In the meantime, it has pledged to maintain the grounds, build a memorial to veterans and hire veterans for city parks and recreation jobs.
UCLA — the most high-profile of the VA leaseholders — signed on to an agreement in January that allows it to continue using the baseball field there (Jackie Robinson Stadium) in exchange for $300,000 a year, a fivefold increase in rent. The deal also commits the university to spend $1.35 million annually to set up and run a UCLA-VA Family Resource and Well-Being Center, a Homeless Mental Health and Addictions Center, a veterans legal clinic and other programs.
These commendable changes, which better reflect the value of the space being leased, came about as the result of a settlement forged in early 2015 by the VA and a group of homeless veterans. The group had successfully challenged the leases in court on the grounds that they did not directly aid vets, as required by law. Since then the VA has crafted a detailed plan for creating 1,200 units of permanent supportive housing on the campus for homeless veterans, whose numbers in L.A. county rank among the country’s largest (although that number in 2016 was 30% lower than in the previous year, a testament to the amount of resources already being spent on reducing veteran homelessness).
But the campus’ remarkable transformation cannot get underway unless and until Congress removes a ban on leases enacted a decade ago at the behest of California lawmakers, most notably Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Henry Waxman. Their stated goal at the time was to stop the VA, which had issued a spate of leases to rental car companies, laundries and other businesses to raise money for VA programs, from converting more of the campus into commercial space. But the enduring effect is to prohibit new leases that would yield benefits more directly to veterans, while also blocking contracts with developers and service providers to supply housing and supportive services for homeless vets.
Feinstein and Sen. Barbara Boxer, both Democrats from California, and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) introduced bills in the Senate and House, respectively, to restore to the VA’s leasing authority. And the legislation has attracted bipartisan support. But Feinstein’s bill is currently bundled with a larger measure for veterans in the Senate that has yet to come up for a vote.
This legislation should not be languishing in Congress. The officials at the VA, the community, the local schools, advocates and veterans themselves have all stepped up and worked hard to get a plan in place that promises to revitalize the campus. Now it’s time for Congress to do its part and pass this crucial legislation.