At a fundraising party for The Veterans Project last Saturday night in Los Angeles, three compelling speakers helped us connect somewhat different stories, all of which involve allegations that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) habitually deprives veterans of services to which they are entitled. CBS News sent a crew to shoot footage of Michael Needham for an upcoming 48 Hours episode about his son, John, who died after overdosing on drugs administered by a VA nurse. John, at the time, was staying at a relative's home, but probably should have been an inpatient.
Mark Rosenbaum, Chief Counsel for the ACLU of Southern California, spoke about a recently filed lawsuit against the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki, and the Director of the Greater Los Angeles VA, Donna Beiter, for their failure to provide housing for homeless veterans at the West Los Angeles VA facility. Homelessness in the veteran population is a national scourge, but the situation in Los Angeles is unique because the original property owners who donated the land on which the VA campus now sits, stipulated that it was to be used exclusively for the care and permanent housing of disabled veterans. In apparent violation of the deed, the VA provides no permanent housing there, and leases about 30 percent of the property to various corporations and schools. Nobody knows how much the leaseholders pay, or where the money goes.
There has to be some reason - and probably not a good one - that the VA has been making secret land use deals with private enterprises. The VA itself describes the property as "one of the most valuable parcels of real estate in the western United States." Although no incriminating evidence has yet surfaced, it's fair to wonder if VA officials have been receiving kickbacks in exchange for making sweetheart deals.
Another possibility is that wealthy donors have threatened to withhold campaign contributions from Rep. Henry Waxman, Sen. Barbara Boxer and Sen. Dianne Feinstein if they don't stay quiet about the scandal. Presumably, some of the donors have financial interests in the businesses that are operating on VA land, while others own adjacent property or live nearby and don't want "their" neighborhood "invaded" by thousands of veterans.
Without making any specific accusations, Rosenbaum likened the situation to the land and water use disputes that were dramatized in Roman Polanski's 1974 film, Chinatown.
The ACLU lawsuit has energized veterans' advocates and made our goals more reachable. In addition to Rosenbaum, I've met several of the attorneys who are working on the case pro bono. They are all extremely proud to be lending their formidable talents to the cause, and their sense of outrage on behalf of veterans is a beautiful thing to behold. Likewise, their high level of confidence is quite heartening, and it's always worth pointing out that the ACLU wins the majority of its cases.
Rick Reyes, a Marine veteran who had his own mortgage business but lost it (and his home) when the housing and finance markets collapsed, was our third speaker. He was never actually homeless, but Rick went undercover in a homeless shelter for five months to observe how veterans are treated there, and to figure out how services should be improved. He's now in the initial stages of developing a plan to renovate and sell foreclosed homes. Click here to read a Q&A that former LA Weekly reporter John Seeley did with Rick last week.
This story was also published by The Veterans Project.