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VA Secretary Endorses Former Santa Monica Mayor’s Idea for Housing Homeless Veterans

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

By Hector Gonzalez
Staff Writer

January 29, 2015--Four years after helping spearhead a class-action lawsuit to force the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide housing at its Westwood campus for homeless vets, former two-term Santa Monica City Councilman Bobby Shriver stood at a podium next to Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald on Wednesday and beamed.

“We won,” said Shriver at a news conference where McDonald announced a settlement had finally been reached in the 2011 lawsuit.

“Today we're pleased to announce that the VA and attorneys representing homeless veterans in Los Angeles reached an agreement that settles a long-standing lawsuit involving VA’s West Los Angeles medical campus,” McDonald told reporters at the VA facility on Wilshire.

“We’re moving forward together, designing a plan to end homelessness among veterans in Los Angeles County.”

Under a new master plan to be completed for the nearly 400-acre campus by no later than mid-October, McDonald announced, new permanent and transitional housing will be built for homeless veterans, “including under-served populations such as female veterans, aging veterans and those who are severely or mentally disabled.”

In the coming weeks he'll hire a new special assistant who will report directly to him on the master plan's progress, “and the lawsuit will be dismissed,” McDonald said.

For Shriver, it was the long-awaited outcome of an effort he became personally involved with during his first campaign for council in 2004, when he discovered that several buildings on the West Los Angeles campus sat vacant and “completely in disrepair” even while veterans were going homeless on Santa Monica's streets, he told reporters.

“I thought, foolishly at the time, that that was something that could easily be fixed—I was wrong,” he said. “I spent years working with colleagues on the City Council, other regional leader, trying to persuade various people that should be fixed.”

Shriver was credited at the news conference for bringing the issue to attorneys at the ACLU, who along with a legal team of experts sued the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2011 for failing to provide adequate housing and mental health services for the county's homeless veterans.

That year, the Santa Monica City Council adopted a motion by Shriver to file a “friend of the court” brief joining in the class-action lawsuit.

“I just want to say that we depend on lawyers like this to get justice done,” Shriver said from the podium Wednesday, smiling. “I tried to do it by advocacy and it did not work.

 It's because of them that we're here today, and also—I have to say—because we have an enlightened leader now at the VA who understands how to get things done.”

Things got done remarkably quickly. According to VA officials, most of the major points of the settlement were reached at a single meeting earlier this month in McDonald's office.

Under the agreement, VA officials working the legal team and community leaders will select “top urban planning firm” charged with drafting the master plan, McDonald said.

A preliminary written plan setting goals for the master plan, as well as the hiring of the Secretary's special assistant, is expected to be completed by February 13, according to the settlement terms of the lawsuit.

“We want to get it right,” said McDonald.

 The agreement also calls for creating “an exit strategy” to end lease agreements the VA had made over the years with private companies for use of parts of the Westside campus, McDonald said.

In 2013, U.S. District Court Judge Samuel James Otero ruled in favor of the ACLU's claim that the leases violated federal law because they did nothing to help homeless veterans.

The VA appealed the ruling, but all appeals in the case now will be dropped, McDonald said.

“We look forward to the campus being used in a more veteran-centric manner to better serve the homeless population of Greater LA,” McDonald said.

According to estimates by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, some 9,000 veterans are homeless in the county. Cases of mental illness among the county's homeless population have soared in recent years, largely due to homeless veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, according to Shriver and other advocates.

Santa Monica City Councilman Tony Vasquez was among several city officials at the news conference.

“You look at this facility, it's under-utilized,” said Vasquez. “When we were getting hammered in the 90s for homeless people in Santa Monica, the homeless vets were a huge part of that population, but the VA didn't want to address it. Today's is a big day for us.”

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