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Homeless Veterans Basic Rights Ignored in L.A.

On July 4th We Reflect on Our Moral Obligation to Veterans

On this July 4th it's important to reflect on our nation's disgraceful treatment of veterans in general and homeless veterans in particular. I have previously blogged about the fact that there are between 130,000 and 200,000 vets on the streets on any given night representing between one fourth and one-fifth of all homeless people. The Veterans Administration estimates there are about 1.5 million other veterans at risk of homelessness due to poverty, lack of support networks, and dismal conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing. Advocates for the homeless have initiated a class-action lawsuit, filed on behalf of four mentally distressed homeless veterans, contending that the US Department of Veteran Affairs has violated the terms of an agreement in which property in Los Angeles was deeded to the government in 1888. The suit is based on the claim that the department is required — under a federal statute barring discrimination against the mentally disabled — to provide housing to help mentally ill veterans. The scope of the lawsuit is, to a certain extent, limited and, if successful, it would apply only to those homeless veterans deemed mentally disabled. Yet, L.A. has the largest population of homeless veterans in the nation — 8,200 of the city’s estimated 49,000 homeless people, by one count — and the number is expected to swell as soldiers return from Afghanistan and Iraq.

CBS recently made the issue front and center in the American psyche with a shocking report and video. In its report, CBS points out there is a large VA hospital in L.A. and an old-age home for veterans. However, most of the land and buildings that once housed homeless vets have been vacant and dilapidated for decades. With the VA and city of L.A. looking for resources from any source to reduce operating deficits, the VA has been leasing about one-third of the property for private use: to a bus company, to Enterprise Rent-A-Car, for UCLA's baseball stadium and a private school's athletic field. There's even a golf course and a dog park. There's no public record of where the money goes. Bobby Shriver, the former mayor of nearby Santa Monica, has been pressing the VA to spend the money to provide housing for homeless, traumatized vets. "To let them live on the street and die when we have this sort of facility is un-American," Shriver says. So he joined veterans and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in a lawsuit to force the VA to rehab this facility to house two to three hundred veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Josh Taylor, a Veterans Affairs spokesman, released a statement reiterating a pledge from Eric K. Shinseki, the Veterans Affairs secretary, “to end veteran homelessness by 2015. “We have a moral obligation to ensure that veterans and their families have access to affordable housing and medical services that will get them back on their feet,” Mr. Taylor said. “Though much work remains, V.A. is beginning to make good on that promise.” Taylor's statement is disingenuous. This is not a new problem. U.S. military involvement in Vietnam ended on August 15, 1973 as a result of the Case-Church Amendment passed by the U.S. Congress. Vietnam Vets came home thereafter to a hostile America, with serious PTSD problems, and lacking the basic needs they were entitled to after putting their lives on the line for our country. Even if you did not support the Vietnam War, our soldiers merited supported for making the ultimate sacrifice.

Finally, some action has been taken. Bldg-550 The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee approved a bill last month that would authorize the Department of Veterans Affairs to spend up to $35.5 million to house homeless vets at the VA Medical Center in West Los Angeles. That money would be used for seismic retrofitting and renovations at Building 209, converting it into a therapeutic housing facility. The Senate Appropriations Committee followed suit adopting an amendment by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) to the 2012 VA spending bill that endorses the project. Both bills now move to the full Senate.

According to a L.A. Times story, the renovated Building 209 -- the first of three slated for conversion into housing units -- would have room for only a fraction of the thousands of chronically homeless vets in Los Angeles County. That's why some local advocates are pushing for the VA to move faster. Among other steps, that faction is supporting by the ACLU lawsuit that would force the VA to provide more permanent, supportive housing at the West L.A. campus. The lawsuit reflects a split among local leaders over how best to solve the problem of homelessness among local veterans. On one side are such governmental insiders as L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA.), who see the VA making progress toward a solution, albeit slowly. On the other are cage-rattlers like Santa Monica Councilman Bobby Shriver, who argue that "tectonic plates move faster than the VA."

We need a sea change in public policy on many levels to support those who have sacrificed for this nation, the impoverished, unemployed people who are casualties of the greed-driven 2008 financial meltdown and who are seriously seeking work and trying to gain new workplace skills, and our senior citizens who have been promised social security and Medicare benefits under a social contract. The fact is our national debt is not due solely to socially-targeted entitlement programs that, admittedly, may have to be scaled back, but equally to the fighting of ill-conceived wars, the cost of serving as the world's national policemen and financially supporting unfriendly regimes such as in Pakistan, and costly fraud and corruption in government programs and by politicians.

On this July 4th let me leave you with two quotes that sum it up perfectly. The first was the last speech of Hubert H. Humphrey: "...the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” Mahatma Ghandi said: "A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members."

Blog by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, July 4, 2011