UCLA opens veterans support centers on the West LA VA campus

UCLA Chancellor Gene Block speaks with Steve Young, Deputy Undersecretary for Health for Operations and Management, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
UCLA Chancellor Gene Block speaks with Steve Young, Deputy Undersecretary for Health for Operations and Management, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Libby Denkmann/KPCC

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VA officials and UCLA leadership gathered on Monday to announce the school has begun fulfilling a 10-year, $16.5 million agreement that keeps the Bruins playing baseball in Jackie Robinson Stadium on the West L.A. VA campus.

UCLA officially unveiled a legal clinic and a center for veterans' families on the VA Medical Center campus, although both have been operating since August. A third facility, focused on assisting homeless veterans, is on its way.

"This really is a partnership," said UCLA Chancellor Gene Block. "It brings together the expertise of the VA and the expertise of our health system and other parts of campus to really provide the very best benefits for veterans."

UCLA has begun hosting events for veterans at Jackie Robinson stadium, including movie nights and batting practice, and providing veterans with free seats to scrimmages and some baseball games.

One of the new facilities, The UCLA School of Law Veterans Legal Clinic, offers help to veterans with a range of issues, including disability claims and addressing tickets for minor infractions, like jaywalking.

"We are going into court and helping individuals clear those citations and hopefully getting them on the path that they want to be on," said legal clinic co-director Will Watts. He pointed out small tickets can mushroom into much bigger problems with expensive fees if not addressed.

"And then when individuals are confronted with the opportunity to get a job or secure housing, these are barriers that prevent them from doing so," Watts said.

UCLA also opened a Veteran Family Wellness Center, which the school says will fill a need to support service members' extended families, who also bear the consequences of mental health effects like PTSD.

"The VA traditionally funds care for veterans, but due to the scope of funding it’s not able to offer services to extended family members, children or spouses," said Tess Banko, the center's director and a Marine Corps Veteran.

In 2013, a judge invalidated all third-party leases on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs 388-acre facility, after a lawsuit argued the contracts weren’t benefiting veterans.

That meant the VA had to put an end to agreements with businesses like a hotel laundry facility and car rental lot operating on the campus.

It also put the future of Jackie Robinson Stadium in jeopardy, until UCLA and then-VA Secretary Robert McDonald reached a deal in Jan. 2016 to allow the Bruins baseball team to keep playing there. It committed UCLA to providing expanded support services to veterans, included legal aid, help for veteran families and recreational opportunities in and around the stadium.

As part of the agreement, the school is also paying the VA $300,000 in yearly rent.

Following the Jan. 2016 deal, UCLA and the VA still needed Congress' ok to go ahead with new contracts. That came in Sept. 2016 with the passage of the West Los Angeles Leasing Act of 2016.

"Any leases on the VA campus must be veteran-centric," said Rep. Ted Lieu, co-author of the bill. Lieu’s 33rd district includes the Westside of L.A. "Now everyone here who is on the campus is helping veterans in one way or another."