06/13/2011 07:43 pm ET | Updated Aug 13, 2011

Los Angeles Veterans Housing Lawsuit Reaches Into History

The lawsuit filed on Wednesday against the Veterans Administration over housing for disabled veterans hinges in part on an 1888 deed that is more than a historical relic, advocates say -- it's a promise.

In particular, the ACLU and other organizations, like the Vietnam Veterans of America, want the VA to use its West L.A. campus to address the plight of homeless veterans. More than 8,000 homeless vets live in Greater Los Angeles, according to a 2009 VA survey, and many struggle with addiction, mental illnesses like PTSD or some toxic combination of the two.

For now, the Veterans Administration has allowed a profusion of some very un-military organizations onto the 387 acres that make up its valuable West L.A. property: UCLA, the prestigious Brentwood School and Enterprise Rent-A-Car. They all lease land from the U.S. government, and the VA says the proceeds from those arrangements are then spent on care for veterans.

But the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the VA argue that's not the plan John P. Jones and Arcadia Bandini de Baker had in mind for the land.

In 1888, Jones, a gold prospector turned United States Senator, and de Baker, "one of the great beauties and richest and most influential women of her day," gave some of their extensive holdings to the federal government for the explicit purpose of providing homes for disabled veterans, many of whom had fought in the Civil War.

The land deed says the property should be used by the government to "locate, establish, construct and permanently maintain a branch" of the precursor to the VA, the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. Modern-day advocates emphasize the word "permanently."

For many years, the land was used for just such a home. The Pacific Branch was created to give former fighters a place to live out their years. But by the 1960s and 1970s, the ACLU said, permanent housing for veterans was closing down -- leaving only short-term housing as long-term buildings on the campus decayed.

In a statement coinciding with the lawsuit, Carolina Winston Barrie, the grand niece of Arcadia Bandini de Baker, lamented "the degradation of the land, the lack of care for the veterans, let alone a home, and the violation of the donors’ intent."

Now, as a large population of veterans with mental health issues return from Iraq and Afghanistan, many will need something those soldiers' homes of the 19th century provided, advocates say: permanent housing.

In the last two decades, organizations and academics fighting homelessness have come to realize the benefits of a "housing first" approach for those suffering from mental illness and addiction, one that relaxes rules stressing sobriety and instead emphasizes the benefit of a room to call home. Get the homeless off the streets, advocates argue, and they are much more likely to get help they need for issues like addiction.

"They did have supportive housing, and that's what those soldiers' homes were," said Gary Blasi, one of the lawyers in the case against the VA. "They had the housing and they had the resources right there."

For years, veterans groups have argued that there is no better place for supportive housing than the giant campus in West Los Angeles, where some of the old buildings that used to serve as permanent housing decades ago could be rehabilitated. Now Blasi and his co-counsels are trying to force the VA's hands with the lawsuit, which charges that the federal government violates the terms of the 1888 deed by leasing the land to third parties.

Some have charged that developers with an eye for the valuable land, which sits right down the road from affluent neighborhoods like Brentwood, have pulled strings to slow down construction for the homeless and thus keep the door open for future projects of their own.

"Many people have their eyes on that land, and they have many powerful friends," said Bobby Shriver, a councilman in nearby Santa Monica.

"People have not taken the issue seriously. That's why we had to sue," he added. So far, said, "the negotiation and the advoacy have failed. And really it's failed because the vets who could have been there have died."

Blasi said he is confident that his side will prevail in court. The supportive housing approach has become so critical to the challenges homeless veterans face, he said, that "if you analogize it to a physical disability, the VA could not put on the third floor of a building the services for paraplegic veterans without providing an elevator."

But he also acknowledges that one of the aims of the suit is "absolutely" to put more political pressure on the VA.

Congressman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), whose district includes the VA land, declined to comment on the lawsuit. On Monday his office released a letter cosigned by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that called on the VA chief Eric Shinseki and White House budget director Jack Lew to quicken the pace of one construction project planned for the West L.A. campus.

In June of last year, Veterans Administration officials said they would spend $20 million for therapeutic housing on the campus, but so far the administration has not finalized that request.

"Further delay is unacceptable," Waxman and Feinstein wrote. "Without improvements on the West LA Campus our veterans will remain on the streets and our taxpayers may be forced to foot the bill to defend our inaction."

The VA has declined to comment on the lawsuit, but told the New York Times that in general it has "a moral obligation to ensure that veterans and their families have access to affordable housing and medical services."

Correction: An earlier version of this report misidentified Bobby Shriver as the mayor of Santa Monica. He is a councilman and former mayor.