More than a century after a mining magnate and a wealthy socialite deeded 400 acres in Los Angeles for the care of old soldiers, the property hosts wine tastings, a college baseball stadium, a commercial laundry, golf course and several other enterprises that have nothing to do with wounded warriors -- but that injustice soon could be corrected.
Following a class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of homeless veterans and the descendants of Arcadia de Baker, the wealthy widow of two powerful landowners, a plan to return the valuable parcel to the service of veterans is due next month. The Department of Veterans Affairs, working with a specially appointed committee, will honor the intentions of Baker and John Percival Jones, a silver baron, one-time U.S. senator from Nevada and founder of Santa Monica, when they left the land to the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in 1888.
"The misuse of the West Los Angeles campus is particularly offensive because of that donation," David Sapp, of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California, told FoxNews.com.
While the property did serve as a refuge for tens of thousands of veterans scarred in battles ranging from the Civil War to the Vietnam War, something changed in the 1970s. There was no shortage of wounded veterans, yet the VA emptied out the sprawling grounds known as the West Los Angeles Campus and began renting property out for all sorts of uses that had nothing to do with veteran care.
"The original goal here was to provide comfort and stability to disabled veterans. It was a different era with different wounds but that goal should remain exactly the same."
- Jim Strickland, VAWatchdog.org
"Not only were the local VA officials not using the land to house homeless vets, but they were actually affirmatively misusing the property by entering into these private-use agreements that had nothing to do with healthcare, housing or otherwise serving veterans," said Sapp.
Critics believe the land's prime location in the tony Brentwood area, nestled by the Santa Monica Mountains and neighboring Beverly Hills, played a role in the ouster of veterans. While a mental health facility may have been perceived as detrimental to soaring property values, Sapp said it also was in part due to the VA's move away from operating permanent housing for veterans.
The ACLU sued the VA in 2011, and, earlier this year, forced the government agency to restore the land to its intended use. VA Secretary Bob McDonald declined to pursue an appeal, despite pressure from third parties including UCLA, whose baseball stadium occupies 20 acres.
Although the VA has not revealed any accounting, critics estimate the VA reaped as much as $40 million over the decades leasing the land out for such uses as a hotel laundry facility, storage for a movie studio, car rental companies, oil companies and a parking lot for public school buses. The rolling acreage also has hosted everything from golf tournaments and musical performances to wine-tasting and gala benefits.
Meanwhile, the number of homeless veterans in Los Angeles – the nation's largest population of homeless and veterans with disabilities – has grown to an estimated 8,000.
The legal settlement involved the establishment of a specialized team of residents, veteran service organizations and elected officials to develop a master re-development plan. Out of that, the nonprofit organization called Vets Advocacy was formed to partner with the West LA VA chapter and ensure veterans' voices were heard.
They're still in need of input and ideas – thus both veterans and civilians are being urged to participate in Vets Advocacy's online survey "VA the Right Way." A deadline has been set for this coming Oct. 15, in which representatives will present a preliminary proposal subject to public comment.
Some former service members have called for a center specializing in issues pertaining to female veterans, and others have proposed a reintegration center and "one-stop shop" for all needs and questions. Alternate suggestions have included long-term and sustainable veteran housing, a work center for disabled veteran-owned businesses and even a holistic center in which a veteran doesn't necessarily need to be sick, but can visit with friends and family.
Richard Valdez, a Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart recipient appointed liaison for the major Veteran Service Organizations on the project, stressed that the intended outcome is to provide a safe and welcoming environment for all veterans, and meeting long-term needs as demographics change.
In a town hall meeting to address veteran homelessness in Long Beach last week, McDonald, who took the leadership role in July 2014, reaffirmed his commitment to ending veteran homelessness in LA.
"This is a top priority for us. We can't do this from Washington alone," McDonald said, adding that various local partnerships and veteran voices were a necessity.
The Department of Veterans Affairs did not immediately offer comment on past or future land-use plans. But Jim Strickland, founder of advocacy group VAWatchdog.org, said the whole debacle comes as no surprise.
"The original goal here was to provide comfort and stability to disabled veterans," he said. "It was a different era with different wounds, but that goal should remain exactly the same."
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