LA's VA Campus: A Ballpark, An Oil Well ... And, Maybe Soon, A Home For Homeless Vets
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
We're going to go next to a place that is home to a parrot sanctuary, an oil well and a college baseball stadium. It's a massive property in Southern California that's owned by the Department of Veterans Affairs. For several years, veterans groups have been fighting to get more of that land to be used for veterans. NPR's Quil Lawrence paid a visit to see how that's going.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Before the Santa Monica Pier, before the freeway, even before the big Hollywood sign up on the hill, there was the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Campus.
HEIDI MARSTON: This is the chapel. This is one of the oldest buildings on the campus built in the 1800s.
LAWRENCE: In 1887, a wealthy family donated almost 400 acres of land to be used just for war veterans.
MARSTON: I'm Heidi Marston. I'm the administrative director for community engagement and reintegration services at the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center.
LAWRENCE: Marston's job might be better described as community reconciliation and disentanglement. Sometime in the mid-20th century, the mission of this VA campus got lost. The VA started leasing out parts of the property for all sorts of things that had nothing to do with veterans. Hollywood studios used it. School buses were stored here. The list is long and weird. Marston gave me a tour.
MARSTON: So now we're coming up to the golf course and the Japanese garden.
LAWRENCE: At least veterans play for free. There's also a huge dog park where wealthy residents of Santa Monica walk their pets and a parking lot full of solar panels.
MARSTON: Again, some very longstanding agreements, but they do provide energy and services to the hospital.
LAWRENCE: And a 20-acre athletic field leased to an exclusive prep school in Brentwood. UCLA built its baseball stadium on the grounds in 1981. One of their pitchers was warming up the day we visited. And next to the stadium...
MARSTON: We have a parrot sanctuary.
LAWRENCE: ...A parrot sanctuary.
MARSTON: It's mating season, so we hear a lot of the squawking on the campus here.
(SOUNDBITE OF PARROT SQUAWKING)
LAWRENCE: I didn't cut this tape. The parrot actually squawked on cue.
LAWRENCE: Next to the parrot sanctuary is an oil well, an actually well pumping oil out of the ground next to the 405, which slices the VA campus down the middle. All of this might seem funny if Los Angeles didn't have the highest number of homeless veterans in the country or if the millions of dollars that VA was charging for the leases had actually been going to veterans care. But that was never clearly the case, and in 2011, vets groups in Los Angeles sued the VA. VA fought it, then settled the suit in 2015. Heidi Marston has spent the past two years helping untangle the VA from dozens of leases and business arrangements that didn't help vets. The most visible impact so far is a refurbished building for housing of the homeless.
MARSTON: Also, LA has a vacancy rate of less than 2 percent for housing. I think over time, all of these buildings will either be renovated or completely remodeled into permanent supportive housing.
LAWRENCE: Those will include housing for families according to the master plan for the campus. It will put veterans next to their medical facilities but also other amenities, which is why the VA is repurposing some of the leases. UCLA, for example, gets to keep its baseball stadium but will offer $1.6 million per year in rent and services to veterans. And of course the vets can go to the ball games. Some of those deals still seem a little too sweet to the veterans who originally sued the VA.
DAN GARCIA: If you really look at it from an objective land use perspective, it has no business there, and the VA, for whatever reasons it chose, has played ball with them, so to speak.
LAWRENCE: Dan Garcia is a combat-decorated Vietnam vet and a community leader with years of experience in LA city planning. He says the VA is still not being transparent enough to regain his trust.
GARCIA: They are plodding along. They are entangled in regulations and process. They're a slow-moving bureaucracy, and so they're making progress in their own mind. I just don't think this is their primary discipline, and I'm very concerned about it.
LAWRENCE: Garcia says there are still people in West LA's opulent neighborhoods who don't like the idea of hundreds of formerly homeless vets moving in.
GARCIA: Well, that's too bad. The idea of housing 2,000 or 3,000 homeless and mentally ill and physically disabled vets on one campus and making a community out of it - we want it to be a national monument to make them feel welcome.
LAWRENCE: For what it's worth, that's now the VA's stated goal as well, says Heidi Marston.
MARSTON: Building 1,200 units here is going to be critical for ending veteran homelessness. I would say within 10 years, it's going to be a completely different campus.
LAWRENCE: Fifty-four homeless vets were supposed to move into the first refurbished building on campus this month. VA even threw them a welcome party with housewarming gifts. But the building wasn't ready. Now it's supposed to open next month. Quil Lawrence, NPR News.
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