Adversaries Become Partners in Long Running Struggle to Find Shelter and Aid for Homeless Veterans

It was the week before Christmas when the phone rang "out of the blue," as high-powered lawyer Ron Olson begins the story of the breakthrough that led to a legal U-turn for the VA and a new partnership for helping homeless veterans.

On the phone was Robert McDonald, West Point Graduate, Army veteran, and recently retired CEO of the Proctor & Gamble company, who had answered President Obama's call to tackle the problems in the Department of Veterans Affairs as its new Secretary.

Among the big issues: the high rate of homelessness among veterans, nowhere more than in Los Angeles. President Obama wants it solved this year.

Olson and McDonald had never met face to face, but they had common friends. McDonald wanted to discuss the lawsuit in which a federal-district court judge had ruled against the VA's practice of leasing portions of its West LA Healthcare campus for purposes that had nothing to do with veterans' health.

The VA leases space for an athletic field to the private Brentwood school, for UCLA's Jackie Robinson baseball stadium, for laundry services for Marriott Hotels, among other uses Judge James Otero found inconsistent with the requirements for the 387 campus and for the VA.

Plaintiffs contended these uses took away from the services the VA owes veterans.

Rather than accepting the 2013 ruling, the VA, under then-Secretary Eric Shinseki, appealed, a process that dragged on. Mediation failed.

A name partner in the prominent downtown LA law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson, Ron Olson had volunteered his legal skills "pro bono" and served as one of the lead attorneys for the homeless veterans who constituted the plaintiffs.

On the phone, Secretary McDonald came straight to the point.

"'This is not a problem that should require lawsuits or litigation,'" Olson recalled McDonald telling him.

"'I agreed,'" Olson said he replied. "I'd been trying to get that point across for a while," he added with a slight chuckle.

For his part, McDonald learned that the original prime mover behind the lawsuit had been Bobby Shriver, the former Santa Monica city councilman who is also a Kennedy. Shriver had recruited the legal team to file the case.

"I've known Bobby for years," McDonald said. The Shriver family has been deeply involved with the Special Olympic — mother Eunice Kennedy Shriver co-founded it — and for three decades, Proctor & Gamble has partnered as a principal corporate sponsor.

Catalyzed by the interconnected relationships and trust. the result was a meeting of the minds. A series of discussions led to the drafting of a framework for not only a settlement of the lawsuit, but also a partnership to develop a "new master plan" for the West LA campus and improve "care and services for homeless veterans."

"We have moved from adversaries to partners in a month's time," Olson told those who assembled Wednesday inside a meeting room of the VA's West LA hospital where McDonald, flanked by Olson and Shriver, announced the agreement.

The document sets forth a series of tasks of deadlines, including writing a "veteran homelessness strategy and action plan for Greater LA no later than 2/13/05."

The new Master Plan, including provisions for building new veterans housing, is due by October 16.

But the first deadline calls for the parties to ask the District Court to vacate the lawsuit ruling — in effect, to make it as if the case now known as Valentini V. McDonald had never been filed.

Olson defended voluntarily surrendering this legal stick to hold over the VA, citing the benefit of the VA dropping its appeal, and calling this new partnership "a far superior way to go."

Skepticism remains among veterans.

"We've been hearing things for years," said Charles Williams, a disabled Army veteran who has become a familiar sight outside the VA campus on San Vicente Blvd.

"They need to get moving," said Norma Stone, a 79-year-old veteran of the US Air Force. Attending the news conference, she took the microphone for the final question from the audience, imploring the trio at the lectern to turn the plan into reality.

The unveiling of the plan comes during the annual "point in time" census to count homeless veterans. Estimates vary, but it's believed there are at least six thousand in Los Angeles County. Thursday night McDonald plans to join a team canvassing the streets in and around downtown LA's skid row.

McDonald said he will take the opportunity to learn from homeless veterans what solutions they would seek.

The West LA VA campus dates back to the 19th century, when the land was deeded to the federal government as an "Old Soldiers Home" for veterans of the Civil War.

In the 20th century its services expanded, but in the 1960s, its commitment to housing veterans was limited. Apart from those admitted to the hospital, the number of residents currently residing in facilities on the campus is fewer than one thousand, according to the VA Public Affairs office. One facility, opened in 2010 by CalVet, operate at only half its 396-bed capacity because its kitchen has yet to be built.

In recent years, Robert Rosebrock of the "Veterans Revolution" and other advocates have argued the VA could make an immediate impact by erecting tents and modular housing as temporary shelter in what is now open space on the campus. This would serve as temporary shelter until new permanent structures can be planned, approved, and built.

When the issue was raised at the news conference, some in the audience applauded.

McDonald said he did not yet know enough about LA's specific needs to determine whether it would be appropriate, but said he hoped to learn more speaking to homeless veterans Thursday night.

Shriver's role in the partnership will involve integrating the private and philanthropic sectors into expanding housing and services for homeless veterans.

Also to be dealt with are the leased uses targeted in the lawsuit. The agreement calls for developing an "exit strategy" for non-VA entities that won't fit within the new master plan.

"We applaud this outcome and understand the need to find lasting housing solutions for our local veterans," reads in part a written statement from UCLA Chancellor Gene Block. "We are eager to work with Secretary McDonald to strengthen the VA's relationship with UCLA, including Jackie Robinson Stadium," an apparent indication that, new agreement notwithstanding, UCLA hopes its baseball teams will be able to continue playing on the VA campus.

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