Christine Barrie grew up listening to the story of how her family came to donate land for the purpose of developing permanent supportive housing for veterans.
With the intention of giving veterans access to medical and psychiatric services and providing them with permanent housing, Barrie’s great-aunt, Arcadia Bandini de Baker, donated the 387-acre land parcel at the northeast corner of Wilshire and San Vicente boulevards in Brentwood in 1888.
The veterans were well taken care of then, she said.
“This [was] a healing property. The veterans were fed three times a day. They worked for themselves. They wore uniforms. When the home first opened in the 1920s, many veterans walked from San Francisco to live here. It was an amazing place.”
With the rise of property values in the area, the Department of Veterans Affairs started giving control of the land piecemeal to private companies. Nearly 90 years later, portions of the property have been leased to a number of private businesses, including a rental car company.
The Department of Veterans Affairs eliminated permanent housing for disabled veterans on the property, forcing many vets onto the streets.
Now the American Civil Liberties Union is alleging misuse of the land at the VA facility in West L.A. On Wednesday, it announced that it has filed suit against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on behalf of four homeless veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, among a host of other disabilities. The suit also include hundreds of other vets in the Los Angeles area diagnosed with similar conditions as the plaintiffs.
“The VA is legally obligated to provide medical and psychiatric services to every veteran,” said Mark Rosenbaum, the ACLU's chief counsel. “The property was donated to be used as permanent supportive housing for the veterans. The 1888 deed gave away this property but only under the specific condition that it be utilized as a permanent home. But that has not happened.”
A representative for the Department of Veterans Affairs could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
The plaintiffs asked a U.S. District Court to order the department to use the property solely for meeting the medical, psychiatric and housing needs of veterans.
“It’s shameful,” said Steve Mackey, president of the Vietnam Veterans of American California State Council. “We have all the buildings in there. They can just modify the buildings and open them to homeless and disabled veterans.”
Rosenbaum agreed. “Now the land houses more empty buildings and more rental cars than it does veterans,” he added.
Mackey said one of the plaintiffs listed in the suit, who has lived on the streets since his return from service in Afghanistan and Iraq, fears coming forward because he suffers from a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“He has been struggling to adjust to life back home," Mackey said. "He constantly has nightmares. He says it would have been better to come home in a flag-draped coffin. He needs medical and psychiatric help.”
The attorneys for the plaintiffs said the department has thwarted several attempts to communicate.
“Scores and scores of efforts were made to try to resolve this situation without a lawsuit,” Rosenbaum said.
“The head of the VA and the head of the local VA know about this. We constantly tried to talk to them. But we have not received any response.”
Mackey also said veterans—who have been protesting to get the housing facility for homeless vets reopened for decades—had no choice but to file suit. Veteran organizations have spent years working to persuade the government to pay attention to them.
“I would like to make clear that this lawsuit is a last resort,” Mackey said. "We tried to have the government and the VA to provide the services and accommodations that our disabled and homeless brothers and sisters need. But the VA has not responded.”
The Barrie family has also complained of a lack of response from the department. Every time family members tried to discuss the lack of effort to help veterans, they were either turned way or given responses such as “We’ll talk to you later,” Barrie said.
“We were promised that they had a plan under way to revitalize the land and reuse it. Every single promise has been a lie,” Barrie said. “If this place could go back to what it used to be, it would be my dream. It would be my mother’s dream.”