VA settles lawsuit, agrees to transform West LA campus to help disabled veterans

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The U.S. Dept. Veteran's Affairs has agreed to revamp its 387-acre West Los Angeles campus to house and better serve disabled veterans to settle a lawsuit by disabled veterans accusing the agency of misusing federal land there over the past four decades.

During that time, only a part of the VA-owned site was used for veterans. Other areas were leased out to a rental car agency and other private companies, while some buildings were empty and neglected.

At a press conference to announce the settlement and transformation of the 400-acre campus, officials said it would provide permanent housing for veterans - with some buildings remodeled and others built from the ground up. A large hospital already sits on the property.

The agency has agreed to have a master plan in place by October. A nonprofit will be formed to oversee the effort and generally advocate for improvements.

Attorney Bobby Shriver will help lead the effort. Shriver and V.A. Secretary Robert McDonald worked together when Shriver headed up the Special Olympics, and McDonald was CEO of Proctor & Gamble, which sponsored the program.

Shriver said he hopes the campus to be more than just housing and medical care. He envisions a thriving community.

"There's no track. There's no basketball courts. There's no Starbucks. There's no dry cleaner. There's no community. There's no restaurant," he said. He wants all of that on the campus.

The land was donated to the V.A. by two prominent benefactors in the late 1800s. They specified that the property be used to house veterans.

Known as Old Soldiers Home throughout much of the late 1800s and early 1900s, the V.A. stopped taking new residents at the West L.A. campus in the 1960s and it went into decline. Currently, there are no homes for vets to live there permanently, although about 800 are living in temporary beds.

It was the leasing agreements on the property - from a laundry for Marriott hotels to parking lots for school buses and rental cars and even baseball facilities for UCLA - that prompted a local group of disabled veterans and the American Civil Liberties Union to sue the V.A. in 2011. They argued the land should be used to serve Southern California's large homeless veteran population, especially those suffering from PTSD and other mental disabilities.

A judge ruled last year that allowing commercial businesses to use the property was illegal, records show.

The news has been cheered by veterans and veteran advocates.

Waiting for a ride outside the medical center Wednesday afternoon, Veteran Bernard Barnhart remembered what the West L.A. campus used to look like. His father, also a veteran, lived there in the 1950s.

Barnhard said he's been homeless since 2000 and spent much of that time living on the side of a freeway.

"The city just took my car," he said, sitting in a wheelchair, his belongings in a paper bag. "That's the third one they've taken. I get off the freeway. I get into a van or a living condition and then they take it away."

Barnhart hopes to return to the campus when the VA begins accepting residents again.

Leaders acknowledged Wednesday that it will take time and money to do that. How much money is unclear, though the V.A. vowed to foot most of the bill.

In the meantime, McDonald said he intends to meet the Obama Administration's goal of ending veteran homelessness by the end of 2015.

The West LA campus will be in the midst of transition at the end of 2015, but McDonald said he intends to find beds for all of L.A.'s homeless vets by the end of the year, even if it's temporary.

Los Angeles still has an estimated 4,000 homeless veterans - the largest population in the US.

He said buildings on the West L.A. campus are resurrected, some vets will get to move into permanent housing there.

This story has been updated

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