Culver City Observer -

VA Accused of building baseball stadiums instead of veteran housing

 


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LOS ANGELES - (KTTV) Navy veteran Michael Williams came back from the Gulf War decades ago but says he feels like he's still fighting.

"We are a small group of people fighting the rich," Williams told KTTV.

He showed us the tiny home he now lives in on the Veterans Administration lands in West Los Angeles. It's a shelter he got after the tent encampment outside the VA gates incensed local leaders and neighbors.

"We're living in sheds," he said. "This is supposed to be my home and look how I'm treated."

He explains that this land was deeded to the federal government more than a century ago with the promise that it would be used to house disabled veterans a hundred years ago.

But while Williams and others have waited for housing on the sprawling 388-acre campus, veterans' groups say the VA has been illegally leasing out land to private interests.

"Prior to Los Angeles becoming the nation's capital for veterans homelessness, 5,000 veterans lived on the property," said Rob Reynolds of Amvets. "Today, there's only a couple of hundred and 4,000 homeless veterans – you do the math."

The Iraq War veteran is one of the most vocal critics of how the VA land is being used pointing to a legal ruling and the VA's own inspector general reports which have upheld the land should only be used to benefit veterans.

He is especially critical of a new lease that allowed UCLA to build a second baseball field.

Almost a decade ago, a federal judge voided a lease with UCLA and others calling them unauthorized under the law. Then in 2016, Congress passed legislation giving the VA permission to lease the land.

But there were stipulations, one of them being that the leases must benefit veterans.

Reynolds says the ball field doesn't meet the criteria.

He gave us a recording of a VA official who has since been reassigned, which – he says – shows as the VA is prioritizing private interests over housing.

"Our advocates, who are a little testy out there, are going to get up in arms about another ball field being built," the official can be heard saying before discussing that the media was about to get wind of the lease and was going to notify UCLA so they could discuss how to get ahead of it.

"This will likely get out faster than they want, they have a veterans story," the officials said, in part. "Some player story with some heritage that they want to wrap the unveiling around."

That official has apologized for not being more transparent, UCLA stands by the ball field insisting it complies with the congressional law, adding in a statement:

" UCLA has been proud to partner with the Department of Veterans Affairs for 75 years, and offers current and former members of our armed forces state-of-the-art medical, psychological, family, legal, educational and recreational services."

"The law is supposed to be on our side," said Vietnam veteran Alfred Areyan. "Nothing has changed."

Areyan, who is part of a coalition of veterans groups calling for more housing on the VA campus. He says he also outraged by an oil lease on the campus and the lease to the super exclusive Brentwood School.

The private institution, which teaches the children of some of LA's wealthiest residents, is leasing more than 20 acres to house its athletic facilities.

The VA's own inspector general has called that lease illegal. The school now lets veterans use the facilities and in a statement said:

"Brentwood School could not be prouder of its association with the Department of Veterans Affairs with whom we have been a reliable partner since 1972. We are privileged and humbled to serve LA-area Veterans and look forward to many more years of continued service"

No one from the VA would speak to us on the record, but in a written statement also defended the leases pointing to the 2016 law, saying in-part:

"Current leases at the West Los Angeles VA campus do not impact housing construction and renovation in any way. VA believes all the leases currently in place are legal."

The statement also said the same is true for its new master plan for the campus. Under that plan, the VA says it will have a total of 1,200 housing units in 5 to 10 years. It will also offer career and mental health services.

The plan also calls for a town square, bike lanes and walking trails. That's not sitting well with the leader of the regional Vietnam Veterans of America chapter who calls it a community plan that would convert the land to public parks and retail.

Advocates like Reynolds also say it'll leave veterans out on the streets.

"They're talking about building housing in 10 years. We are already six years late on the housing and they're talking about taking another 10 years to build," said Reynolds. "That is absolutely unacceptable when they prioritize building baseball stadiums."

Now, veteran advocates say they are gearing up for another fight.

"I'm not going to stop fighting to get this land back for our veterans," Areyan said."Rich people need to go and get their own land."

 

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