The VA: Time to Think Win-Win
If everyone involved with the homeless veteran issue would compromise a little, everyone could win big.
By Jeffrey S. Hall | September 23, 2013
One of the problems with lawsuits is that you often end up with real winners – and real losers.
In the case of the ACLU lawsuit against the VA, we currently have a very mixed result that, unless something changes, will likely leave everyone dissatisfied for a very long time to come.
The judge’s recent decision doesn’t go into effect for six months; it feels like he’s sending a powerful signal to all parties to resolve this between now and then. If everyone can get into a win-win frame of mind, maybe that’s possible.
The VA situation is complicated, to be sure. Where are we, exactly? What should happen next?
A few months ago the federal judge in charge of this case ruled that current veterans really don’t have legal standing to enforce the original deed of 1888.
In the original deal, the family who gave the land to the federal government said the land should be used as a permanent home for disabled soldiers. Congress approved this arrangement at the time.
But the judge ruled that today’s veteran activists, backed by the ACLU, can’t force the VA to do more to provide services and possibly even on-campus housing for disabled and homeless veterans. It would be up to the good will (and available resources) of the VA to do more.
But the ACLU recently won on the issue of private leases, which have been declared illegal. Over the years, the VA leased out portions of its land for various purposes deemed to not directly benefit veterans.
While this result makes many veteran activists happy, it won’t, in the near term, actually result in additional services or housing for disabled or homeless veterans.
The VA says getting rid of the leases will actually result in reduced medical services to veterans, since money generated by these leases could soon go away.
The VA sees its core mission as providing health care. The VA has never been keen about providing housing to homeless veterans, and particularly not on the VA campus. The VA prefers to work through H.U.D., which provides housing vouchers to those in need of shelter. These vouchers are used like cash by veterans to rent apartments across the region.
The VA estimates there are 6,000 homeless veterans out on the streets of LA County. More disabled veterans will soon return from overseas.
The recently begun rehabilitation of Building 209 will only serve 65 homeless veterans at a time. This project might make officials behind it feel good, but this effort alone won’t do much to actually solve the bigger problem.
One argument often used against doing more for homeless veterans on campus is that many homeless veterans, given the chance to live at the VA, say they wouldn’t want to live there.
Because of their emotional conditions (often brought about by war), or maybe because of some unhappy experience with the VA, many homeless veterans distrust the VA mightily.
Many, I’m told, really would prefer to live among everyday citizens (and therefore actually like the H.U.D. program). Given a choice, some would actually prefer to remain homeless rather than stay at the VA.
So it might not make sense to build some huge housing facility for homeless veterans on the VA campus if they wouldn’t use it anyway. It would be possible to start smaller now and then build up to the number of housing units required.
Surely some existing VA land could be used for temporary barracks as homeless get the services they need to begin their transition back into society. Maybe cots could be placed inside some of the empty buildings. Maybe tents could be erected if all else fails. Let’s do the best we can with what we have until some better answer comes along.
And some of these homeless veterans will require permanent housing, there’s no getting around this. So let’s just embrace this and get on with things.
It’s time for some fresh thinking here.
Maybe, rather than fighting the leases, veteran activists should ask that all money generated by these leases – including on-campus oil wells – be directed to the cause of helping homeless and disabled veterans. That would be a huge win for veteran activists.
Another big win would be if Brentwood School’s fabulous swimming pool and athletic facility – built on land leased from the VA – were opened up to veterans. That’s certainly consistent with healthcare.
Same with UCLA’s Jackie Robinson Baseball Stadium. Veterans should be able to attend ball games all the time, not just when there are extra tickets. Veterans should be able to play there, as well.
It has never been clear to me why a proposed 16-acre park envisioned for the corner of Wilshire and San Vicente is viewed as a bad thing by veteran activists. Surely veterans and their visiting families would enjoy the use of the park.
I think a museum memorializing the contributions of our fighting men and women should be part of such a park. Such a park and museum could never get built in the near-term without private donations, so if some sharing arrangement between veterans and the public helps pave the way for the park’s completion, that’s a “win-win.”
If park proponents can raise private money, maybe a similar private fundraising effort could go toward providing shelter to homeless veterans. Private money built the Fisher House on campus (for families visiting hospitalized veterans). Why not shelter for homeless and disabled veterans?
If the government is the only institution big enough to tackle the homeless issue, the VA could lease some of its land to H.U.D. and let those who specialize in housing issues do the job. There is precedent for this; a few years ago, the VA leased part of the campus to the State of California for a retirement home.
But such an effort would obviously take a while; the money won’t magically appear out of thin air. The federal government, if you haven’t noticed, is broke. And a big housing project could take years to complete.
Meanwhile, we still have homeless veterans on the streets. And the current mix of legal decisions in the ACLU case leaves open the possibility our homeless veterans could remain homeless forever.
The judge’s six-month delay gives all parties time to come up with a “grand bargain” that works for all. Surely there’s a way if everyone can be reasonable, knowing some give-and-take is required here. Fingers crossed.
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