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Homeless veterans in Los Angeles sue the VA over promised housing


Los Angeles County has long had the country's highest number of homeless military veterans - nearly 4,000 by last count. And last night, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs was hit with a lawsuit by a group of them who say the VA is depriving them of housing. Anna Scott from member station KCRW reports.

ANNA SCOTT, BYLINE: For as long as he can remember, Josh Petitt wanted to join the military, like his dad who served in the Marine Corps and the Army.

JOSH PETITT: When I was about 8 years old, I remember I watched him jump out of a helicopter. You know, I thought it was the coolest thing ever. And yeah, it was one of the main reasons I joined the Army.

SCOTT: Was the experience what you expected once you got in?

PETITT: For the most part. War wasn't what I thought it was going to be like. That was - yeah. I don't know.

SCOTT: Petitt served as an infantry soldier in the Iraq War. He was awarded three Purple Hearts. And after returning stateside, he struggled with PTSD that led to drug addiction.

PETITT: I'd never done methamphetamines till I got back from Iraq. I wouldn't have to sleep, and no sleep means no nightmares. So I thought I found the cure.

SCOTT: We're speaking on a bench outside the homeless shelter where Petitt lives right now on what's known as the West Los Angeles VA. That's a huge medical campus, almost half the size of Central Park. Petitt believes he should be living on this campus in a real apartment, which is why he's now one of 13 disabled homeless veterans suing VA Secretary Denis McDonough and the VA director in charge of this property.

And this lawsuit is basically a do-over of a case filed in 2011, which hinged on how the government came to own this campus that I'm standing on more than a century ago. It was donated by a wealthy widow on the condition that the property serve as a home for veterans. The 2011 case alleged that the VA had failed in that obligation. And a few years later, the VA agreed to build 1,200 apartments here for needy veterans. But looking around, they've only completed a tiny fraction, and this campus still looks a lot like it did seven years ago. There's a hospital, various medical facilities and lots of empty open lawns and some stuff that has nothing to do with veterans at all, like sports facilities for nearby schools.

MARK ROSENBAUM: We trusted the government to come through, and that turned out to be a grievous error.

SCOTT: Attorney Mark Rosenbaum with Public Counsel worked on that older lawsuit and says the only recourse is to sue again. So he has. The VA couldn't give an immediate response to the lawsuit, but in interviews earlier this year, VA officials have pointed out that they are building the housing. Construction is going on; it's just behind schedule. Why so slow? One reason is money. The VA says it can't pay for the housing because it's a health care agency. Here's the VA director in charge at the West LA campus, Dr. Steven Braverman, in April.


STEVEN BRAVERMAN: Because of the laws that we have in our country, VA is not allowed to build housing unless it is specifically tied to a treatment program.

SCOTT: So cobbling together the money for this enormous project falls to a team of private developers brought in by the VA. That takes time. But Mark Rosenbaum, the lawyer, rejects those excuses.

ROSENBAUM: That's not just inhumane, and it's not just immoral, and it's not just a set of [expletive] lies. It's also against the law.

SCOTT: The new lawsuit asks the court to force the VA to improve housing access for LA's neediest veterans quickly because, it argues, for disabled veterans who see doctors at the West LA VA in one of LA's highest-rent areas, not being able to live on or near the property means they don't get health care.

For NPR News, I'm Anna Scott in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anna Scott

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