West L.A. VA Returning to Homeless Mission

by Ken Olsen

Veterans will have access to permanent supportive housing, free legal assistance, family counseling and innovative mental health treatment under a new plan for the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center campus announced Thursday. Many of the new services will be funded or staffed by UCLA under an agreement that allows its baseball stadium to remain on VA property but allows veterans to use the facility.

VA Secretary Robert McDonald and attorney Ron Olson announced the plan, which is part of last year’s legal settlement between veterans and the VA, at the West Los Angeles campus.

“It’s with the strength of our partnerships and the momentum from the last year that allows me to announce today that we have finalized the master plan for the future use of VA’s 388 acres here in LA,” McDonald said. “Veterans of Los Angeles deserve a VA campus that can be a home for those who need one or a home away from home for those who come here for their medical care.”

The American Legion, part of a coalition of seven veterans service organizations that closely followed development of the conceptual plan, is guardedly upbeat about the future for the campus.

“We’re optimistic, but cautious,” said Larry Van Kuran, commander of The American Legion Department of California and co-chairman of the veteran’s coalition. “Now the VA is at a critical point. And the question is, are they going to follow through?”

Attorney Gary Blasi, one of the attorneys who represented veterans in a lawsuit challenging VA’s mismanagement of the West Los Angeles campus, is impressed by how much the master plan has improved since it was released in draft form in October. “It really is completely different and much more impressive and exciting,” Blasi said. “I think the plan – assuming the VA can pull it off – has the potential to make the campus a point of pride and a model rather than a national embarrassment.”

A transformed West Los Angeles VA campus also has the potential to significantly reduce veterans homelessness considering the Greater Los Angeles area has the highest concentration of homeless veterans in the nation. The plan unveiled Thursday calls for initially establishing 1,200 units of permanent supportive housing on the campus – with work on 490 units to begin almost immediately.

Most of the private businesses that had negotiated sweetheart leases to use campus space for everything from a hotel laundry facility to school bus storage are gone as a result of last year’s legal settlement. Other nonveteran tenants, including UCLA and the Brentwood School, are being asked to contribute significantly more in order to stay.

UCLA has paid just $60,000 a year for exclusive use of a baseball stadium built on a portion of the 387-campus by The American Legion. It will now pay $300,000 a year to use the stadium as part of the university’s new commitment to contribute about $1.5 million a year in cash for campus improvements. The university also is expected to donate $2 million in services over the next decade. This means new services including a counseling center to help veterans and their families, a legal clinic that can help veterans with benefits claims and discharge upgrades, and a Center on Excellence for Addiction and Mental Health that will treat veterans with these co-occurring disorders. UCLA will staff all of these centers.

This level of commitment is appropriate, Van Kuran said. “UCLA can bring a lot more to the table than they have been.”

Under an agreement that is still being finalized, Brentwood School will open its private athletic complex to veterans for a substantial portion of each day. The facilities also were built on acreage leased from VA.

Initial efforts to create housing will involve transforming existing buildings that have been idle or underutilized. A 62-bed transitional housing center located in what is known as building 209 can become permanent supportive housing in the near future. Nearby buildings also are earmarked for renovation, which means that as many as 490 additional housing units could be available to veterans within a couple of years, Blasi says.

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