By Nick Watt, CNN
In 2014, the mayor of Los Angeles made a bold promise: to end veteran homelessness in this city by the end of 2015. He didn’t.
There are, by latest count, still more than 3,600 homeless veterans here, down just a few hundred in five years There are more homeless vets in Los Angeles than anywhere else in the country.
Meanwhile, abutting beautiful Brentwood in the affluent west of the city lie 388 acres managed by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Much of it was gifted to the nation in 1888 on one condition: that a home for disabled soldiers “be thereon so located, established, constructed and permanently maintained.” This land, say advocates, could and should be the solution.
But today just a few hundred veterans live on this land, which is about half the size of New York’s Central Park. Many of them are in a nursing home run by the state of California. The federal government leases 10 acres to UCLA for a baseball field, the home of the Bruins. Vets do get free tickets to games. And, in apparent violation of an act of Congress, another chunk is leased to an energy company that drills for oil here.
Another 22 acres are leased to Brentwood School. The exclusive private school has built an athletics track, tennis courts and a swimming pool, which, according to its architect, was “conceived as a theater for swimmers.”
“It’s really kind of disgusting to see,” said Rob Reynolds, an Iraq War veteran who says he spent time on the streets around here, waiting for treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.
“When you see people who raise their right hand to serve our country sleeping and dying on the street, and you have one of the most elite private schools in the country charging $40,000 per year per student, and they have immaculate amenities and the veterans are living in squalor, it just doesn’t make any sense.”
The bulk of this land was donated 135 years ago by a senator and a businesswoman named Arcadia Bandini Stearns de Baker. “My great-great-grandmother was her sister,” explained Christine Barrie at her home just down the road. “It’s scandalous,” she added about the current uses on the land. “It wasn’t given to anybody but veterans. For a home.”
Barrie now leads a fund to renovate the dilapidated chapel overlooking busy Wilshire Boulevard in the hope it will become a symbol of what this campus once was and should be.
Promises made and not kept
The lack of homes prompted the American Civil Liberties Union, on behalf of veterans, to sue the Department of Veterans Affairs, which manages this site through its Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System.
“VA GLA does not offer permanent housing for any disabled veterans,” the complaint from 2011 reads in part, “including homeless veterans who suffer from severe mental disabilities or brain injuries.”
Four years later, the VA opened a newly renovated Building 209 as a “transitional residence housing unit for chronically homeless veterans.” Transitional, not permanent.
The lawsuit was settled and the VA released a master plan proposing the establishment of permanent supportive housing units on the land. By its “Potential Phasing Timeline,” 710 new units should be built by now. Not a single one is.
VA officials hail 54 repurposed units in a building opened in 2015 — before the master plan was published — as progress.
“It’s a paltry number. But 54 is better than zero,” said Ryan Thompson with a wry smile. Born and raised around here, he formed a coalition of residents and veterans in 2019.
“What we’re doing is trying to build as much public awareness as possible of the facts around the lawful use of that land,” he said.
Even updating the master plan is behind schedule.
“We’re supposed to be on our second revision,” said Anthony Allman, a veteran who serves on a board established in 2016 to oversee the VA’s management of the land. “We’re only on our first,” he said. The first revision is slated to be signed this year.
But this project to house vulnerable veterans remains tangled in red tape and mired in utilities issues and financing delays.
Some 180 units are now finally under construction and scheduled to open this fall. “That is the hope,” said Keith Harris, appointed a few months ago as senior executive homelessness agent on the campus.
Robert McKenrick, who manages the master plan, paints the bigger picture. “We should be up with the 1,200 within the next eight years,” he said. So the permanent homes should be ready 14 years after the pledge was first made.
Reynolds, the veteran, says the cost of the delay has been high.
“I’ve dealt with quite a few veterans dying right outside the gates of the VA,” said Reynolds, who now helps other veterans access VA services. “If you have the right program and the right processes in place from the beginning, those deaths would’ve been preventable.”
Finding housing is still a critical need for veterans in greater Los Angeles, where thousands of them continue to live and exist on the streets.
Sarah Hunter, a behavioral psychologist, spent a year following the fates of 26 unhoused veterans who live within a bus ride of the VA campus.
“They were telling us that first of all they were really motivated and wanted to obtain housing,” she said. “Only three out of the 26 found a permanent housing solution. So that was, in my mind, abysmal results.”
In 2020, after decades of pressure, the VA finally allowed some veterans to come in and camp on what is their own land.
“The pandemic provided an opportunity for us to justify piloting bringing veterans on the campus,” said Dr. Steven Braverman, the medical director of this campus. He’s a medical doctor, not a housing expert, and many advocates question why a VA Healthcare System is even in charge of this land.
“If the VA really has a difficult time with developing housing, maybe it’s an opportunity to look elsewhere,” said Allman, the veteran who serves on the supervisory board. Another department within the VA, perhaps. Or a different federal agency.
A thriving past was shaken and stolen
About 100 previously homeless veterans do now live in temporary “tiny homes” on the site. The shelters come with a bed, heating and air conditioning, and a door to shut.
But thousands of veterans used to live here, in permanent housing, for decades. There was a thriving community with a trolley to the beach in Santa Monica, where the veterans had a bath house also donated by Baker. When the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers opened here in the late 1800s, it is said, hundreds of men walked all the way from San Francisco to reach it.
Reynolds showed CNN a postcard just given to him by a friend, sent in November 1909. The front shows a bucolic scene of what this place once was. On the back is handwritten, “The home of 3,000 soldiers, Numerous Government bldgs… it is certainly a beautiful place.” Not anymore. Many buildings are boarded up and rotting.
After an earthquake in 1971, the veterans were moved out. The reason depends on to whom you talk. Some say the buildings were deemed seismically unsafe; others point to Congress abolishing the National Home System, which housed wounded veterans, and repealing the VA’s authority to build homes.
“I think it was after the Vietnam War, the tone towards veterans changed,” said Barrie, the philanthropist’s relative. “And the VA let it deteriorate.”
The VA decided to dedicate much of the campus to health care, not housing. There is now a large, bustling hospital on the southern section, just off the 405 Freeway that splits Los Angeles.
And after the ’71 earthquake, the VA started leasing plots of land to entities that had nothing to do with veterans. Tenants have included kids’ soccer clubs, Enterprise Rent-A-Car and a movie studio that stored sets here. It remains unclear where a lot of the rental income went.
“For years, I believe it was stolen, parts of it,” said McKenrick, the current director of the master plan project. “But I think some of it came in and was used in VA for some of the programs and initiatives.”
In 2018. Richard Scott, who leased a parking lot on the land, was imprisoned for embezzling more than $13 million. And Ralph Tillman, who for many years managed lease contracts here, was jailed for lying to investigators. Tillman admitted to taking more than $250,000 in bribes from Scott.
“This property has been corrupt for many years,” according to Barrie.
Lease dollars are now deposited in accounts dedicated to site improvements and other veteran-centric programs. It is a condition of an act of Congress passed in 2016 that also decreed this land can now be leased only to entities providing “services that principally benefit veterans and their families.”
Yet just a few weeks later, the VA renewed the license for Breitburn Energy to continue drilling for oil on the land. The company donates just 2.5% of revenue to veterans.
Disputes over school lease
The VA also signed a new 10-year lease with Brentwood School. The school refused CNN’s request for an interview but sent a written statement, which reads in part: “Brentwood School could not be prouder of our association with the Department of Veterans Affairs. … Independent, third-party audits verify that Brentwood School has met or exceeded every lease obligation.”
That is true. The school has donated tiny homes; it offers scholarships for the children of veterans; and it paid and donated more than $2 million a year to the VA in the last audit. It includes around half a million dollars for routine upkeep as well as repair and replacement of equipment, which is considered an “in-kind consideration” to the VA.
One of the conditions of their lease is veterans are given access to those school athletic facilities. “We’ve heard complaints that it takes a while to get the membership card,” said Allman, who is the executive director for an organization called Vets Advocacy. “We’ve brought that to the attention of Brentwood School. They said they’ve corrected it.”
Usage data provided by the school showed in 2017, there was an average of just fewer than three veteran visits a day. In 2021, there were nearly 12. Meanwhile, more than 1,200 kids are enrolled in the school.
In 2018 and again in 2021, the VA’s own inspector general ruled the lease violates the act of Congress because “the principal purpose of this lease was to provide the Brentwood School continued use of the athletic facilities.” The VA itself calls that view “erroneous.”
“I don’t feel equipped to speak to what’s going on with it,” said Harris, the newly appointed campus agent who is managing this land going forward. “What I am comfortable sharing is that they’ve been tremendous partners. The services they do provide have been tremendously beneficial to veterans.”
“The arrangement with the school is noncompliant on the land use,” concedes McKenrick, who heads the master plan but will soon leave for a new VA post in New Mexico. But, he said, the school does benefit the local veteran community and ending the agreement could have its own problems.
“I’m sure if we terminated the lease they would take us to court,” he told CNN.
Veterans surprised by new deals
In 2016, the VA promised transparency and veteran involvement in the development process for the campus.
But in 2019, the VA surprised both veterans and their oversight board by proposing to spend more than $4 million on a “healing garden.”
“I was distressed by it, to say the least,” said Allman, who sits on the board. “VA was proposing to spend $4 million on a garden with that many homeless veterans literally on the street?”
In 2020, the VA amended UCLA’s lease, again in private, to add a new practice field.
“I mean, there’s a video recording of them talking,” said Reynolds. “Talking about, ‘Don’t let the veterans find out. Keep this from them. They’re gonna be up in arms.'”
“We probably should have shared that,” the VA’s McKenrick told us. “We are committed to being transparent. We should have shared that then and gotten input.”
UCLA also refused our request for an interview. Every year the renowned school pays rent and provides legal, medical and educational services totaling around $2 million. A press officer wrote in a statement to CNN: “UCLA pays market-rate rent for its use of Jackie Robinson Stadium.” But, according to a 2016 appraisal of the land, they’re actually about a half-million dollars short.
Campus gets national attention
During the 2020 presidential campaign, then-candidate Joe Biden made a pledge to create housing for vets “by refurbishing buildings condemned or not in use, such as the massive VA Los Angeles campus.”
The following year, Denis McDonough, Biden’s secretary of veterans affairs, bemoaned in a video message addressing veteran homelessness: “Here we are midway through 2021 and only 54 of 1,200 planned permanent supportive housing units on our West LA campus have been completed.”
Remember, those 54 units are not new construction. Not a single new unit has yet opened.
McDonough went on to say the land “has the potential to serve as a model for the nation on how to address veteran homelessness. It’s not a model yet, but I am committed to making sure it is.”
Over a few years, Congress added its spending power and appropriated more than $100 million to make many of these buildings that will one day house needy veterans earthquake-safe. But the VA will do the work only on one building and diverted $35 million of the money to build a new kitchen near the hospital.
“The remainder was returned,” McKenrick told us. He said public money was no longer needed as private contractors will renovate and manage the buildings that will house the veterans, under 99-year leases.
The VA won’t pay for the seismic work but will pay to install and upgrade utilities. Then the buck is passed to those private developers to raise money for everything else, and that takes time.
Some veteran advocates are wary of private developers leasing such valuable land for so long.
“From the very beginning, there’s been a concern about private developers on the land,” said Barrie, who said she sees herself as a watchdog over the land donated by her relative. “I personally believe that the VA and the government should chip in for all of this.”
Tyler Monroe, a senior vice president at Thomas Safran & Associates, one of the developers involved, said, “I couldn’t even begin to speculate,” when asked what the land could be worth. It’s in a neighborhood where, just a few hundred yards from the gates, you can splurge $205 on a single steak in one of the fancy restaurants along San Vicente Boulevard. Fries are extra.
But that is immaterial, said Monroe, as their deal is “100% deed restricted.” He told CNN: “That requires that these housing units be kept affordable in perpetuity.”
Brian D’Andrea, senior vice president of Century Housing Corporation, another of the developers, added: “What we can say is that two of our organizations are run by veterans. Our present CEO is a Vietnam vet. Purple Heart.”
The outside involvement despite the potential availability of federal funding seems odd to the advocates, they say.
“The federal government has the money to do it. All of this would be done if the intent was there, if the ethics were there,” said Thompson, who leads the coalition of residents and veterans. “They would have renovated all those buildings. There would be formerly homeless vets living there right now. And we would have a lot less veteran homelessness in LA County.”
Reynolds, the veteran, agrees. “I don’t see why they don’t bring in the Army Corps of Engineers … and build the housing,” he said. “Just build the housing and get it done.”
When Reynolds was serving in Iraq, three of his comrades were kidnapped by insurgents. Reynolds knew one of them.
“We were on rear detachment together before we deployed,” he said. “I was involved in the quick reaction force that responded.” Reynolds’ tour ended before the three were found; all were dead.
“It was challenging because you’re always taught, never leave anyone behind,” he said.
He now has a home, has been treated for PTSD, is grateful for his VA benefits and advocates for what he says is the rightful use of this land, still remembering the service ethos.
“I have the opportunity to not leave someone behind,” he said. “This land was donated for a specific reason, and it was to remain that way forever. And that’s the way it needs to remain.”
™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.
CNN’s Stephanie Becker contributed to this report.