Questions have been raised about the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) usage of land that was donated specifically to house veterans of America’s wars who are disabled, as reported by CNN.
Mayor Eric Garcetti pledged that he would end veteran homelessness in 2015 and then went back on his word in August of 2015. According to statistics from Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, based on the 2020 Homeless Count, Los Angeles has 3,681 homeless veterans, the largest number in the United States.
However, near Brentwood, there are 388 acres of land that the DVA manages and most of the land was donated specifically so that housing for veterans would “be thereon so located, established, constructed and permanently maintained” in 1888. Veterans and advocates for veterans think that the land should be used to give homes to veterans in need.
Instead, the federal government, through the DVA, rents significant portions of the land for other commercial purposes in an area that is half the size of Central Park in New York City. Ten acres are leased to UCLA for the Bruins baseball field; veterans do get free tickets to games. The Brentwood School leases 22 acres of this land and uses it for an athletic track, swimming pool and tennis courts for its students. Brentwood School charges each student anywhere between $28,000 to $87,000 per school year and is a for-profit business. The Brentwood School has 1,205 students attending each year. While not every student pays a tuition fee in the highest bracket, that of overseas students who are housed on campus, but you can get an idea of exactly how much money the school is making from the land that they’ve leased. They do have a Veterans Partnership that allows usage of the sports facilities and tickets to shows among other benefits, but it hardly seems beneficial to veterans of our wars who don’t have anywhere to live. The swimming pool was “conceived as a theater for swimmers.” according to the architect as quoted by CNN, so you can imagine that no expense was spared in its construction.
According to CNN, in a violation of an act of Congress, the VA leases land to an energy company to drill for oil on the land.
Iraq War veteran Rob Reynolds said, as quoted by CNN, “It’s really kind of disgusting to see. 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.”
Arcadia Bandini Stearns de Baker, a senator and businesswoman, gifted most of the land 135 years ago. Christina Barrie, a distant relative of de Baker, said, My great-great-grandmother was her sister. It’s scandalous. It wasn’t given to anybody but veterans. For a home.” Barrie lives nearby and is the head of The 1887 Fund, which aims to restore the long abandoned Wadsworth Chapel near Wilshire Boulevard. The fund’s website says“A Veterans Home will be reestablished in perpetuity on the VA West LA campus. It will be operated in a manner that is consistent with the original 1887 charter.”
The ACLU has sued the Department of Veterans Affairs over this issue. DVA manages the campus through the Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System. The lawsuit stated “VA GLA does not offer permanent housing for any disabled veterans, including homeless veterans who suffer from severe mental disabilities or brain injuries.” in 2011. After four years, the only progress was the VA’s renovation of Building 209 which was characterized as a transitional housing unit, not a permanent housing solution for veterans who are unhoused. The ACLU settled the lawsuit with the VA, after which the VA released a “master plan” that would provide permanent housing units on the disputed land. According to the VA’s “Potential Phasing Timeline”, there should be 710 units of permanent housing for unhoused veterans on the property, but not a single unit has been built since the plan was published in January of 2016.
The VA claims credit for 54 units that were opened in 2015, prior to the Master Plan’s release. Ryan Thompson, an advocate for veterans who formed a coalition of veterans and residents in 2019 said “It’s a paltry number. But 54 is better than zero.” He added, “What we’re doing is trying to build as much public awareness as possible of the facts around the lawful use of that land.” as quoted by CNN.
Anthony Allman, a veteran who is a member of the board meant to oversee the VA and their management of this land, said “We’re supposed to be on our second revision. We’re only on our first.”
About 180 units are finally being constructed and are scheduled to be completed by the fall of 2022. Senior executive homelessness agent Keith Harris said, “That is the hope.” as quoted by CNN. Harris is a recent appointee to the project.
Manager of the Master Plan, Robert McKendrick, said, “We should be up with the 1,200 within the next eight years.” as quoted by CNN. This means that it will take 14 years to complete these permanent homes.
Rob Reynolds said, as quoted by CNN, “I’ve dealt with quite a few veterans dying right outside the gates of the VA. If you have the right program and the right processes in place from the beginning, those deaths would’ve been preventable.” It is easy to see that had action been taken sooner, it could have literally saved the lives of veterans who served our country.
The issue of veterans on the street without help from our government is not only shameful, but is a critical need that is going mostly unaddressed.
Behavioral psychologist Sarah Braverman spent time with veterans who lived near the VA campus for a year, studying their lives. She said, as quoted by CNN, “They were telling us that first of all they were really motivated and wanted to obtain housing. Only three out of the 26 found a permanent housing solution. So that was, in my mind, abysmal results.”
In 2020, the VA was finally convinced by mounting pressure to let unhoused veterans camp on the property. The pandemic was a factor in forcing the VA to authorize this move. Dr. Steven Braverman said, as quoted by CNN, “The pandemic provided an opportunity for us to justify piloting bringing veterans on the campus.” Braverman is the medical director of the campus and is not an expert on housing or homelessness. Many advocates for veterans have expressed doubts about the reasons why the VA Healthcare system is in charge of this issue at all.
Veteran Anthony Allman, a board member of the supervisory board, said “If the VA really has a difficult time with developing housing, maybe it’s an opportunity to look elsewhere. Another department within the VA, perhaps. Or a different federal agency.” as quoted by CNN.
The campus is now home to 100 veterans who were unhoused and now live in tiny homes on the property. The tiny homes are just a bed with air conditioning and heat and a door that can be shut.
However, this was not always the case on this land.
Veterans were housed on this land for decades in permanent homes. It was the site of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers that opened in the late 1800s and hundreds of veterans reportedly walked from San Francisco to find a home. It was a community that also had a trolley that took veterans to the beach where a bath house was located for their use. The bath house was also donated by Baker.
Reynolds has a postcard, dated in 1909, that shows what the Home used to look like and a note on the back of the card says, “The home of 3,000 soldiers, Numerous Government bldgs… it is certainly a beautiful place.” Now those buildings are rotted and boarded up, unused for their original purpose.
It wasn’t until 1971 after the San Fernando earthquake that the veterans lost those homes and were forced to move out. No one can exactly say why this happened. One explanation is that the buildings were found to be seismically unsafe, another is that it was because Congress abolished the National Home system and revoked the VA’s authorization to build new homes.
Barrie has a theory and said,”I think it was after the Vietnam War, the tone towards veterans changed. And the VA let it deteriorate.” as quoted by CNN.
It was after the San Fernando earthquake that the VA started leasing plots of land to businesses that had no connection to veterans and from which they received no benefit. Businesses like Enterprise Rental car, a film studio and kids soccer clubs were allowed to rent parts of the property and no one knows who got the money that came from those rentals.
Master Plan Manager McKenrick states that “For years, I believe it was stolen, parts of it. But I think some of it came in and was used in VA for some of the programs and initiatives.” as quoted by CNN.
Richard Scott, a parking lot operator who leased part of the land, went to jail after he was convicted of bribery in a scheme that defrauded the VA to the tune of $13 million dollars.
Ralph Tillman, a manager of lease contracts for the property during that time period and a veteran himself, went to jail for tax fraud and lying to federal investigators after accepting bribes from Scott that amounted to $250,000.
Barrie said, as quoted by CNN, “This property has been corrupt for many years.”
Congress passed an act in 2016 that put in place the condition that the land can only be leased by businesses that provide “services that principally benefit veterans and their families.” and the funds that come from leases are sent to accounts for site upgrades and repairs and programs that provide veterans with benefits.
In seemingly defiance of the act of Congress, the VA granted a renewal of the license that Brightburn Energy has to drill for oil on this land that was meant for veterans. Brightburn Energy only gives 2.5% of the profits realized from their oil business on the property to veterans.
The VA also renewed the Brentwood School’s lease for another ten year period. The school refused CNN’s interview request but said, in a written statement to CNN, “Brentwood School could not be prouder of our association with the Department of Veterans Affairs. … Independent, third-party audits verify that Brentwood School has met or exceeded every lease obligation.”
The Brentwood School has contributed to the VA and to veterans. The school paid and donated $2 million each year to the VA in a recent audit. That amount includes half a million dollars for upkeep and replacing and repairing equipment as “in-kind consideration”, as quoted by CNN, from the school to the VA. They donated tiny homes for veterans to live in and provide the children of veterans with scholarships to their school.
A condition of Brentwood School’s lease is that veterans will be allowed to use the school’s athletic facilities. The school’s usage data shows that in 2017 there were fewer than three visits by veterans per day and in 2021, the number rose to 12. Allman, executive director of Veterans Advocacy said, “We’ve heard complaints that it takes a while to get the membership card. We’ve brought that to the attention of Brentwood School. They said they’ve corrected it.”
The Inspector General of the VA ruled twice, in 2018 and in 2021, that the Brentwood School’s lease also violates the 2016 act of Congress. The Inspector General’s ruling said, “the principal purpose of this lease was to provide the Brentwood School continued use of the athletic facilities.” as quoted by CNN. The VA took the strange step of denying that their own IG’s ruling was correct and called it “erroneous” as quoted by CNN.
Campus agent Harris says, “I don’t feel equipped to speak to what’s going on with it. What I am comfortable sharing is that they’ve been tremendous partners. The services they do provide have been tremendously beneficial to veterans,” as quoted by CNN.
Master Plan Manager McKenrick stated, “The arrangement with the school is non-compliant on the land use. McKenrick will soon leave his post at this campus for another appointment in New Mexico. He also said that he feels that the lease agreement gives benefits to the veterans and that if the lease was ended, other problems could emerge. “I’m sure if we terminated the lease they would take us to court” he said, as quoted by CNN.
While the VA promised that their development plans would be fully transparent to veterans and their advocates, they shocked both veterans and their oversight committee when they announced plans in 2019 to build a “healing garden” for $4 million.
Veteran and oversight board member Allman said, “I was distressed by it, to say the least. VA was proposing to spend $4 million on a garden with that many homeless veterans literally on the street?” as quoted by CNN.
Another example of this happened in 2020, when the VA privately added more land to UCLA’s lease to house a new practice field.
Reynolds said, “I mean, there’s a video recording of them talking. Talking about, ‘Don’t let the veterans find out. Keep this from them. They’re gonna be up in arms.’”
McKenrick admits that, as quoted by CNN, “We probably should have shared that. We are committed to being transparent. We should have shared that then and gotten input.”
UCLA would only issue a press release to CNN and would not agree to an interview. The press agent wrote, “UCLA pays market-rate rent for its use of Jackie Robinson Stadium.” UCLA does pay rent and supplies educational, legal and medical services in the amount of $2 million but falls short of the market rate rent by about half a million dollars according to an appraisal of the land’s value that was issued in 2016, according to CNN.
President Joe Biden also made a campaign promise during his run for office in 2020 to provide housing to unhoused veterans “by refurbishing buildings condemned or not in use, such as the massive VA Los Angeles campus.” The next year, Biden’s Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough said in a video that was supposed to address veteran homelessness “Here we are midway through 2021 and only 54 of 1,200 planned permanent supportive housing units on our West LA campus have been completed,” lamenting that not enough has been done as quoted by CNN.
McDonough added that the land “has the potential to serve as a model for the nation on how to address veteran homelessness. It’s not a model yet, but I am committed to making sure it is.” according to CNN.
Congress appropriated additional monies, in the amount of over $100 million, to retrofit and repair these buildings abandoned after the 1971 earthquake. Instead of doing that, The VA chose to retrofit only one of the buildings and used $35 million dollars to build a new kitchen for the hospital on the campus. The VA has chosen to engage private contractors, who need to raise money to complete construction, and the contractors will do so and have 99 year leases on those properties. McKenrick said that “The remainder was returned.” Instead of using the publicly appropriated funds to do the work that was needed to make the buildings habitable, the VA chose to hand off the responsibility to private contractors giving them control over properties on the land and making the process take even longer.
This move has made veterans advocates very concerned. Barrie, who feels a personal responsibility to protect the land because of her kinship to the woman who donated it, said, “From the very beginning, there’s been a concern about private developers on the land. I personally believe that the VA and the government should chip in for all of this,” as quoted by CNN.
One of the developers who were engaged to complete the project, Thomas Safran and Associates’ senior vice president Tyler Monroe, was asked by CNN how much the property is worth and he said, “I couldn’t even begin to speculate.” He also said that it didn’t matter because the developer’s deal with the VA is “100% deed restricted” and “That requires that these housing units be kept affordable in perpetuity.”
Another developer on the project, Century Housing Corporation’s senior vice president, Brian D’Andrea said, “What we can say is that two of our organizations are run by veterans. Our present CEO is a Vietnam vet. Purple Heart.”
Advocates for veterans find this move to be strange when the federal government had already appropriated funds for the project.
Veterans advocate Thompson said, as quoted by CNN, “The federal government has the money to do it. All of this would be done if the intent was there, if the ethics were there. They would have renovated all those buildings. There would be formerly homeless vets living there right now. And we would have a lot less veteran homelessness in LA County.”
Veteran Reynolds states a very common sense take on this issue and said to CNN, “I don’t see why they don’t bring in the Army Corps of Engineers … and build the housing. Just build the housing and get it done.” Reynolds also told a story about his service in Iraq, where three soldiers were captured by the rebels. He knew one of the soldiers. He said, “We were on rear detachment together before we deployed. I was involved in the quick reaction force that responded.” He didn’t know it at the time but all three of the soldiers were dead and he was sent home before that fact was discovered. Reynolds added that “It was challenging because you’re always taught, never leave anyone behind” as quoted by CNN.
Reynolds is one of the fortunate ones who has a home, got treatment for his PTSD, has gratitude for the benefits that he receives from the VA. Still he insists that this land that belongs to veterans be used for its intended purpose, always thinking of the US military’s credo to never leave a comrade in arms behind.
Reynolds states unequivocally, as quoted by CNN, that “I have the opportunity to not leave someone behind. This land was donated for a specific reason, and it was to remain that way forever. And that’s the way it needs to remain.”