Expediting construction of housing for homeless veterans by leasing more VA property to nonprofits and government entities has been endorsed by Senator Dianne Feinstein.
Sen. Feinstein, D-CA, is working with Rep. Ted Lieu, D-LA, on legislation she said will enable a new round of "enhanced use" leases.
"What I really hope is that this facility can be a unique public-private partnership," Feinstein said during a visit Thursday to the West LA VA campus.
In recent years, the Salvation Army and the state of California have operated housing facilities there.
Some critics object that the new legislation could also enable other lessees — such as UCLA's Jackie Robinson Stadium for baseball — to remain on the campus, despite a 2013 court ruling they constituted improper uses because they did not directly benefit veterans health care.
Earlier this year the ruling was vacated when the parties agreed to a settlement calling for a new master plan due to be unveiled next month.
A year ago, the White House had called for a nationwide commitment to ending homelessness among veterans by the end of this year.
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The most recent count in January found 4,343 of the homeless in metropolitan Los Angeles were veterans, an unexpected increase.
Recent years have seen an expansion in programs providing vouchers to subsidize or completely cover rent, but in California's tight rental market, it has been difficult finding landlords who accept vouchers.
Many have called for more housing at VA facilities. But Congress has been reluctant to approve new VA construction projects, and there are limits on the VA's authority to operate permanent housing facilities.
Feinstein joins a multitude of veterans advocates who look to nonprofit organization to provide permanent supportive housing on VA facilities.
"We need to provide high-quality, dignified environments," said Dr. Jonathan Sherin, a psychiatrist who served at the Westwood VA Hospital and currently runs Vets Advocacy, Inc., a nonprofit formed to fulfill a requirement of the settlement agreement.
"In my opinion, if we actually leverage the partnerships possible between public and private sectors, we could get housing, you know, up and running within the year and grow it to whatever number we need to over five to 10 years," Sherin said.
Vets Advocacy has partnered with the website aimed at current and former service members, WeAreTheMighty.com, to conduct an online survey of veterans, seeking their vision for the future of the West LA VA, to be included in the development of the master plan. The poll is accessible at VAtheRightWay. Org.
"Over the next couple of weeks we will have a solid vision of what vets want to see here," said Mark Harper, senior VP for marketing.
How many housing units to construct remains undetermined, and stands to be a controversial issue among residents of neighboring communities, including Brentwood.
Sherin previously has worked with Volunteers of America, with facilities to house homeless veterans in Hollywood and elsewhere. Volunteers of America would be interested in bringing a facility to the VA campus, said spokesman Orlando Ward.
The Union Rescue Mission also expressed interest in opening "satellite" facilities on the westside and other areas. Its strategic plan calls spreading for homeless services outside the cluster downtown, said Rev. Andy Bales, the mission's chief executive officer.
"There is a critical need for long-term supportive housing on the West Los Angeles campus," states a letter from Lieu and senators Feinstein and Barbara Boxer to the House and Senate Veterans' Affairs Committees, seeking additional authority for the Department of Veterans Affairs. "Enhanced-use leases would allow the department to work with community and state organizations toward the goal of ending veteran homelessness in Los Angeles."
The legislation would also provide "leasing authority for the West Los Angeles Campus in order to bring in community partners, such as the University of California — Los Angeles to provide services that benefit veterans and help make the campus a veteran-centric community setting," the letter states.
UCLA indicated its desire to retain Jackie Robinson Stadium when it challenged Judge James Otero's 2013 ruling. The challenge was made moot — as was the initial ruling — when attorneys for the plaintiffs came to an agreement with VA Secretary Robert McDonald to develop a master plan to resolve the lease and housing issues. McDonald came to the VA a year after the Otero decision.
Whether allowing UCLA to keep the stadium would be counter to the judge's view of the law was a question Feinstein Thursday deferred to Cam Gore, the VA's deputy assistant general counsel. Gore noted that UCLA has long provided medical care to veterans through the VA, and said that could be considered a direct health care benefit to veterans.
UCLA has previously said the relationship advances the VA's "veteran-centric" goal for the campus.
But veteran John Aaron likened it to moving the foul line to transform a foul ball into a home run. "It reduces veterans to being guests on our own land," Aaron said.
Aaron suggested a possible conflict of interest for Feinstein, with her husband Richard Blum sitting on the board of regents of the University of California.
Another critic, activist and Veterans Today contributor Robert Rosebrock, was not permitted to attend Feinstein's news media briefing.
"They're not telling the truth and we know the truth and they're afraid we're going to ask," Rosebrock said.