US: Veterans sue VA demanding land be used for homes and not rented out to a college and private school

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A group of veterans has filed a lawsuit to force homes to be built for them on land now used for elite sports facilities in Los Angeles.

Fourteen unhoused veterans and the National Veterans Foundation filed a complaint in Central California’s federal district court against the Department of Veterans Affairs on Tuesday night, demanding their needs be put first.

“Get the f**k off our land! Or build us housing,” Joshua Petitt, an unhoused Iraq War veteran, told CNN in an alley a hundred yards or so from the gates of the land, which is known as the West Los Angeles Campus.

  Veterans sue VA demanding land be used for homes and not rented out to a college and private school © Provided by CNN Joshua Petitt, an unhoused Iraq War veteran. - CNN

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There are more homeless veterans in Los Angeles than anyplace else in this country – around 3,500 of them on the streets and in shelters, according to the city’s Homeless Services Authority. There are also 388 acres in the leafy, lovely neighborhood of Brentwood on the city’s West Side that were given to the nation specifically to house veterans. But very few veterans actually live here. The land is used for a large VA health center and, among other things, the UCLA Bruins’ baseball diamond, and the sports fields and swimming pool of the elite Brentwood School. They are neighbors, and the Department of Veterans Affairs leases them chunks of this valuable parcel.

  Veterans sue VA demanding land be used for homes and not rented out to a college and private school © Provided by CNN CNN

The lawsuit demands that, “Permanent Supportive Housing should be made available within 6 months, both on the WLA Campus and in apartments near the WLA Campus for at least 3,500 eligible homeless veterans.” Obviously to help those veterans with housing, and to give them access to services they need that are offered on the campus. It also seeks an injunction, forcing the VA not to use the land “for purposes that are not primarily related to providing housing and healthcare for veterans with disabilities.” So no more private school playing fields.

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Petitt, who lived for a year in a tent outside the fence that surrounds this land, is now one of the 14 unhoused veterans among the plaintiffs. “They don’t want us here, bro. I mean, I get it. But I don’t care,” he said. “People always talk about Beverly Hills. But Beverly Hills ain’t nothing compared to Brentwood. That’s why they don’t want us here, because we might be hard to deal with, we have some problems. But they can send us to war to get those problems? But then not have to deal?”

A spokesperson for UCLA told CNN, “UCLA is in full compliance with the West Los Angeles Leasing Act of 2016, as indicated in the Department of Veteran Affairs Office of the Inspector General’s audit of September 2021.”

Terrence Hayes, the VA’s press secretary, told CNN after the suit was filed, “While we cannot comment on ongoing litigation, we at the VA promise that we will not rest until every Veteran has a good, safe, stable home in this country they fought to defend.”

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Hayes pointed out that this year across Los Angeles the VA has, “made available 138 units of housing with nearly 700 more units expected in 2023.” And as for building those new units on the VA campus, he says there will be more than 700 units completed by the end of 2025.

CNN asked the Brentwood School for comment on the lawsuit. They have not yet replied.

Earlier this year, CNN published an investigation into what has happened and is happening here on the land and the promises made previously to veterans.

In 2016, after intense pressure from veterans and their advocates, and after another lawsuit, the VA agreed to house veterans on this land. They published a Master Plan. When we visited in March, more than 700 new housing units should have been completed. But not even one was complete. There were about 180 units under construction and scheduled to open this fall. None of them are open yet. “Now we’re being told next year January, February time frame,” said Rob Reynolds, another Iraq War veteran, a veterans’ advocate, and a driving force behind this new lawsuit.

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In the spring, Brentwood School declined an interview, but gave CNN a statement detailing the amount of money they pay the VA in rent, as well as the services they offer veterans, such as the use of the school’s gym. In response to recent protests outside the school gates by veterans and their advocates, the school posted a statement on its website that reads, in part, “We have been a reliable partner since 1972 … Brentwood School will continue to work with Veterans and VA officials to ensure that our facilities, services, and programs remain available to the thousands of Veterans and their families who use and benefit from them.”

  Veterans sue VA demanding land be used for homes and not rented out to a college and private school © Provided by CNN Jackie Robinson Stadium - CNN

UCLA also declined an interview in the spring, but a press officer wrote in a statement to CNN: “UCLA pays market-rate rent for its use of Jackie Robinson Stadium.” But, according to a 2016 appraisal of the land, they’re actually about a half-million dollars short. The college also provides some legal and other services, and veterans can attend Bruins baseball games for free.

Ball games don’t cut it for Petitt.

“UCLA lets us go to baseball games, if there’s seating available. My daughter’s absolutely benefiting from that. Oh great. Cool,” said Petitt sarcastically. “Brentwood School lets us use their gym when their precious students aren’t there.”

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‘It’s tragic’

Four thousand veterans did once live on this land, say veteran advocates. Roughly the same number of homeless veterans spread across Los Angeles today.

“It wasn’t given to anybody but veterans. For a home,” Christine Barrie, whose ancestor donated much of the land way back in 1888, said in March.

“But with Vietnam, the VA decided, no more,” said Mark Rosenbaum, one of the attorneys behind this lawsuit. “And the neighboring community said we don’t want disabled Vietnam vets out here.” Some say an earthquake in the 1970s that damaged many buildings on the land is actually the reason. The VA says changes in the law prevented them from paying to build veteran housing. The National Veterans Foundation is also a plaintiff. And the legal team includes Rosenbaum’s Public Counsel, as well as the Inner City Law Center, Brown, Goldstein & Levy and Robins Kaplan LLP.

“This is a battle that’s been going on for decades,” said Rosenbaum. “And it’s tragic that we have to go to a federal court in order that vets who served this country can be served by this country.”

  Veterans sue VA demanding land be used for homes and not rented out to a college and private school © Provided by CNN "Tiny homes" come with a bed, heating and air conditioning, and a door to shut. - CNN

In 2016, Congress also passed an act mandating that any leaseholders on this land must, “principally benefit veterans and their families.” Since then, the VA has signed a new agreement with a company that drills for oil on the land. “2.5% revenue we do get,” Robert McKenrick, then a senior official at the VA campus, told CNN back in March. The money is used for veteran transportation. The VA also amended, in private, the UCLA lease, allowing a practice field. That Act of Congress allowed UCLA on the land, on the condition that, “the provision of services to veterans is the predominant focus of the activities of The Regents at the Campus during the term of the lease.” And the VA also signed a new 10-year lease with Brentwood School.

“What’s the point of a law if our own federal government is not going to follow it?” said Reynolds. “And then the end result of this is that veterans are dying on the street.”

“The arrangement with the school is non-compliant,” McKenrick told CNN in March. So, he agreed with a key part of this new lawsuit, that Brentwood School should not be on this land. But, he added, “I’m sure if we terminated the lease, they would take us to court over it.”

Now the VA is being taken to court, but by veterans who want housing. Petitt says housing is, “everything.” He is currently being treated for PTSD. “I can look right here right now and still see the alley in Ramadi,” he said. “Iraq is still so raw.” He wants to help build new homes for vets on this land. “Stability, housing and then everything else will fall into place. And veterans deserve that.”

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