RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
One of the most fought-over pieces of property in Los Angeles is the campus of the Veterans Affairs health care center. It is set on 400 acres in the middle of the affluent West Side, an area that contains Beverly Hills, meaning the land has long been coveted for commercial development. But it's also considered a perfect place to house some of L.A.'s 8,000 homeless veterans. So far, the VA's plans to do that have gone nowhere, even as government documents show that the West Los Angeles VA has made millions of dollars renting out chunks of its property to private enterprises.
NPR's Ina Jaffe has the story.
INA JAFFE, BYLINE: For most Los Angeles residents, the VA health care center in West L.A. is something they glimpse from their cars as they're on traffic-choked Wilshire Boulevard. From the road, it looks like a park. But within the grounds, it's the largest medical facility in the VA's health care system. This is where a veteran named Floyd Summers comes for mental health treatment.
FLOYD SUMMERS: Well, actually, I come a long distance to get here each morning by train and by bus, and I walk.
JAFFE: At the time of this interview, he was living in his truck, which was parked 70 miles away. Summers says he wanted to live right here on the West L.A. campus - the VA and some nonprofits offer transitional housing - but nothing worked out.
SUMMERS: I've been trying to get housing for such a long time that sometime I wonder if anybody's hearing me or not.
JAFFE: Suddenly, Summers provides a glimpse of why he's had trouble fitting into one of the established programs here. He abruptly stops talking. He scowls and looks around - hard to tell whether he's angry or afraid.
(SOUNDBITE OF GRUNTING)
JAFFE: You all right?
Summers is not all right. He hears voices and has mood swings. This started during the Vietnam War. Back then, he was a 22-year-old Army recruit stationed in Germany.
SUMMERS: At that time, I felt that something wasn't right with me, because I felt that some things was real and some things wasn't real, as if I was hallucinating.
JAFFE: Summers is one of 11 veterans with severe mental disabilities who sued the VA. They're represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and a handful of prominent L.A. law firms. Mark Rosenbaum, the legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, says they want permanent supportive housing for mentally disabled veterans like Summers right on the West L.A. campus.
MARK ROSENBAUM: To provide housing that has access to medical and psychiatric services. It's common sense.
JAFFE: Rosenbaum says his clients' severe mental disabilities make it next to impossible for them to get to the treatment to which they're legally entitled.
ROSENBAUM: You can't get medical and psychiatric services if you're living in Skid Row and you're part of a cycle of homelessness.
JAFFE: Neither the VA nor the Justice Department would speak to NPR because of the lawsuit, even though part has been dismissed. But if you try to figure out their position from what they say and do, you may come away confused. For example, in a document responding to the lawsuit, the government contends that the VA has no authority and no funding to create housing. Yet there is long-term supportive housing for homeless disabled veterans now under construction at another VA facility in the Los Angeles area.
Then there's the history. At one time, the sole purpose of the West L.A. campus was to house veterans. That began in the late 19th century, when a couple of prominent Californians donated the land to the federal government specifically to create a home for disabled soldiers.
CAROLINA WINSTON BARRIE: Well, this is the trolley station. They had a trolley that took them everywhere.
JAFFE: Carolina Winston Barrie is the great-great-niece of one of the land donors. She's 84 years old now. For a while, she was also part of the lawsuit, hoping to have her family's original deed enforced. She knows every inch of this place and what it used to be.
BARRIE: This was a fully functional city within the county of Los Angeles. It had everything, some - post office. We're sitting at the trolley station, 150 acres under cultivation, orange trees all over the place. You can't see an orange tree anymore.
JAFFE: What you can see, if you know where to look - and what really bothers Barrie - are the enterprises here that have nothing to do with helping veterans. She points out a few as she drives around the campus.
BARRIE: This is the Jackie Robinson baseball field. UCLA uses that. We just passed the Marriott laundry that does the laundry for the hotels.
JAFFE: We also passed the building where 20th Century Fox stores sets and a 20-acre athletic complex for an exclusive private school at the other end of the property where parking lot's full of rental cars and school buses. The West Los Angeles VA has made more than a dozen of these long-term rental deals, most of which have nothing to do with services for veterans.
REPRESENTATIVE HENRY WAXMAN: The West L.A. VA was in business for itself.
JAFFE: That's Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman. He's been trying to protect the West Los Angeles VA from commercialization for years. During the Bush administration, there were proposals for condos, office towers, a shopping mall. Waxman went to talk to then-VA Secretary Jim Nicholson.
WAXMAN: Secretary Nicholson told me when I went to meet with him that he was a real estate developer, and this was prime real estate and that we could make a lot of money by commercializing it, selling it off and letting people build whatever they wanted to build. And then he said that money could be used for veterans.
JAFFE: Waxman and Senator Dianne Feinstein got legislation passed making it illegal to sell or even lease the property. But that didn't put an end to the rental agreements. That's because legally, the West L.A. VA hasn't been leasing the property. They've been sharing it. They used a law that says the VA can share facilities, quote, "to secure health care resources which otherwise might not be feasibly available." The ACLU lawsuit is challenging the rental agreements, too, and at least three have recently been terminated. Meanwhile, what Congressman Waxman wants to know is: What's happened to the money from the rental deals?
WAXMAN: They earn extra money, which they use - they tell us - for the VA services. The reason I say they tell us they use it is we've never been able to get a lot of the details of exactly where that - how much money they got and how that money was used.
JAFFE: How the money was used may be a mystery, but we can estimate how much money has come in. Through the Freedom of Information Act, NPR obtained the major long-term rental agreements, as well as related correspondence between the VA and members of Congress. Some data are missing and some of the documents conflict, but our estimate suggests that over the past dozen years, the VA Health Care Center of West Los Angeles has taken in at least $28 million, and possibly more than $40 million. Waxman knows what he'd like them to do with the money.
There are many needs that are not being met, including housing for homeless veterans.
The VA has designated three vacant buildings on the West L.A. campus to be converted to housing for disabled homeless vets. They announced that in 2007, though they took no action. In 2010, the agency announced they would spend $20 million rehabbing one of those buildings. It was supposed to open this year. They have yet to break ground. Ina Jaffe, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: And you can see vintage photos of the V.A.'s Old Soldiers Home at npr.org.