When is the Veterans Affairs Department going to meet its responsibility to house chronically homeless veterans in Los Angeles on the large tract of government-owned land that should have been put to this use long ago?
Maybe sometime in 2014, according to the department’s estimates, or halfway through President Obama’s second term, if he is re-elected. For a president who has made eloquent promises about the nation’s duty to veterans, that is a dismal expectation.
The problem predates Mr. Obama, of course. The sprawling 400-acre property in Los Angeles was deeded to the federal government in 1888 expressly for use as a home for disabled soldiers and sailors. But the Veterans Affairs Department long ago strayed from that mission. No long-term housing exists there anymore, though a large V.A. hospital with short-term treatment beds occupies part of that land.
Over the years, the property has been turned over to uses completely unrelated to the department’s mission, like athletic fields, a nine-hole public golf course, theater stages, hotel laundries, rental-car and bus storage, even oil wells and a dog park. Yet it’s unclear how much rent the department has collected from various businesses like Marriott Hotels or where that money has gone.
A class-action lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California was filed last year on behalf of disabled homeless veterans, charging that the veterans are entitled by law to effective mental health care but cannot possibly get it if they have no place to live.
The Veterans Affairs Department would not comment, given the lawsuit. But a reporter for National Public Radio, using Freedom of Information requests, estimated that in the last 12 years, rental agreements have earned the department at least $28 million and maybe more than $40 million.
The property has been studied, scrutinized and fought over for more than 20 years. It has been misused for a long time, and now it’s the responsibility of Mr. Obama, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki and members of Congress, including Representative Henry Waxman, to get to the bottom of this debacle. Mr. Waxman’s office said he had pressed Mr. Shinseki into finding the $20 million in July 2010 to renovate one building for long-term supportive housing. But nothing else has happened yet, and the July 2014 completion estimate is evidence of a department that is slow and unresponsive to its mission.
NEW YORK TIMES