The alleged failure of the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide stable housing to veterans suffering from severe cases of post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental disorders leaves many of them facing homelessness, according to a class-action lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in California.
The lawsuit asks a federal judge to order the VA to use empty buildings on its sprawling West Los Angeles Medical Center campus to provide permanent supportive housing for a class of veterans who suffer from conditions that the plaintiffs argue require a stable home environment for successful treatment.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs, who include several Los Angeles-area homeless veterans and the group Vietnam Veterans of America, said the case, if successful, could have broad implications for veterans’ care nationwide.
“This case could be brought anywhere in the country there’s a homeless vet,” said Mark D. Rosenbaum, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California. “There should be no such thing as a homeless veteran in America.”
The number of veterans estimated to be homeless on any given night has been reduced from 131,000 two years ago to 76,500, according to VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki.
Addressing the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans on Monday, Shinseki reiterated a pledge made in 2009 of “ending the shame of veterans’ homelessness.” The 2012 budget proposal includes $939 million to prevent and reduce homelessness among veterans, an increase of 17.5 percent, or $140 million, from 2011.
“We intend to take this below 60,000 by June of 2012 and end veteran homelessness by 2015,” VA spokesman Josh Taylor said. The department announced an initiative Wednesday to increase the number of transitional beds available to homeless veterans from 15,000 to 20,000.
According to the ACLU lawsuit, between 44,000 and 66,000 veterans are believed to be chronically homeless, meaning they have been without shelter for more than a year or on multiple occasions in recent years. Veterans are about 50 percent more likely to become homeless compared with all Americans, according to a 2009 report on homelessness by the VA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Citing research in the field, the suit argues that the only way veterans suffering from severe cases of PTSD, brain trauma and other disorders can be effectively treated is when they live in permanent housing that allows access to appropriate services and support.
“Homelessness itself exposes veterans to further trauma that itself can both cause and aggravate PTSD and other disorders,” the complaint states.
In a 2009 report to Congress, the VA acknowledged that “for the large percentage of veterans with disabilities, permanent supportive housing would be effective in helping them achieve long-term stability.”
About 8 percent of the nation’s homeless veterans live in the greater Los Angeles area, according to the suit. The 387-acre West Los Angeles Medical Center campus, five miles from the Pacific Ocean, includes many buildings that are vacant, closed or underused.
The land was given to the federal government in 1888 for the purpose of establishing and permanently maintaining a soldier’s home for disabled war veterans. But after the Vietnam War, long-term housing facilities on the campus were closed, and nearly a third of the campus has been leased to private companies, according to the suit.
“If this campus can house rent-a-cars, it can house homeless vets,” Rosenbaum said. Among the plaintiffs in the suit is Carolina Winston Barrie, a descendant of Arcadia B. de Baker, who was one of the land donors.
The VA provides no permanent housing to disabled veterans in Los Angeles with the exception of geriatric nursing beds, according to the suit.
The lead plaintiff in the case, Greg Valentini, served with the 101st Airborne Division on the assault on Tora Bora in Afghanistan in 2001 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003. After his discharge, he began experiencing symptoms later diagnosed as severe PTSD, including graphic nightmares, an inability to concentrate and suicidal thoughts.
He was briefly housed in a short-term treatment program. He has since slept on streets and in a tent near an airport and eaten out of garbage cans. “He has now been sporadically homeless for several years and requires a safe, secure, and stable residence in order to meaningfully access necessary treatment for his mental disabilities,” the suit states.
The suit cites studies concluding that veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are at higher risk of homelessness induced by mental illnesses than those from earlier conflicts. Reasons include the length and number of deployments on which service members are sent, as well as the nature of the conflict, with exposure to roadside bombs and other explosions that could cause traumatic brain injury.
More than 14,400 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have been identified by the VA as being homeless at some point in the past three years, with the number expected to grow as more service members leave the military.