After Years of Being Rented Out to Corporations, VA Property Will Finally House Homeless Veterans
Joe Anctil doesn’t consider his military service the reason he became homeless in Los Angeles. He enlisted as a 19-year-old in 1976—just as his grandfather, father, and uncles did before him—and boarded a ship headed to the Mediterranean during the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War as a storeroom keeper.
Anctil came back home to the U.S. 14 months later, got into the printing business, and progressively developed a drinking problem. In 2012, his wife kicked him out of the house, and he lived on the streets for the next year.
His story is just one of many in Los Angeles, where 4,200 former military men and women are homeless, the highest number in the nation. Some suffer from PTSD or disabilities. Many have simply run out of luck.
For years, the streets of West Los Angeles and Santa Monica have been a haven for year-round outdoor homeless living, even though the Veterans Affairs Department owned a big parcel of West Los Angeles—tucked between the UCLA campus and the upscale Brentwood neighborhood—and used parts of it for commercial income instead of finding ways to house returned servicemen and women. A new settlement would transform the 374-acre Veterans Affairs property, parts of which have been leased to corporations including a Hollywood studio for TV-set storage and a sports facility.
“I became familiar with the lawsuit, and immediately as I did, I said, this doesn’t make any sense,” said VA Secretary Robert McDonald at a press conference on Wednesday night.
The new goal is to get all veterans off the streets by the end of 2015, he announced.
“They’re not going to get all of them off the streets,” said Anctil. “Some actually enjoy being independent and out there, even though they might be eating out of a trash can. They don’t want to give up the drugs and alcohol.”
Bruce Rosen, executive director of the Bandini Foundation, anticipates that dilemma. His foundation is run by the great-nephew of one of the landowners who originally donated the West Los Angeles property to the government back in 1888 to house wounded soldiers. On the VA campus, it operates the Heroes Golf Course, which employs struggling veterans, including Anctil.
“This is America. People can say, ‘I don’t want help, I don’t want a place to live, leave me alone,’” said Rosen. “Some would say, ‘OK, that’s your right.’ But I would say those people are typically suffering from some disability, and they should be helped.”
Over the years, he’s seen businesses such as Marriott Hotels, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, and 21st Century Insurance occupy space on the campus. The VA has possibly raked in more than $40 million from these leases, according to an investigation by NPR.
Unlike Anctil, Rosen is optimistic about Wednesday’s settlement and its promise.
“Ending veteran homelessness is a strong statement,” he said, “but I think homelessness can be significantly reduced…. Most of veteran homelessness in Los Angeles could involve just creating 3,000 beds.”
The VA settlement was the result of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California in 2011. A former veteran, Robert Rosebrock, got the advocacy group’s attention when he got in trouble for protesting the VA campus’ commercialization by hanging an American flag upside down at the gate. In the lawsuit, ACLU alleged that the department failed to aid veterans by leasing out the campus.
While the now 73-year-old Rosebrock wasn’t on the field during the Vietnam War (he worked as a clerk and a driver for a general in Hawaii, where many of the soldiers trained), he works for the rights of Vietnam War veterans as the director of the Old Veterans Guard. He’s worried that specific strategies are still lacking.
“I always try to remain optimistic,” Rosebrock said, “but you’ve got to be pessimistic with the current conditions. The devil is in the details.”
In his announcement, Secretary McDonald outlined the plan: The VA campus will build temporary and permanent housing for homeless veterans. An exit strategy for the current tenants will be implemented as well.
David Sapp, director of legal counsel and education advocacy at the ACLU of Southern California, sees an opportunity.
“Los Angeles is the bellwether of what’s going to happen nationwide,” he said. “This is the epicenter of veteran homelessness crisis nationally. What they can achieve here, that can be replicated and be successful anywhere else in the country.”
Thousands of veterans had more horrifying combat experience than did Anctil, who now happily works at the golf course. And they haven’t been as lucky regaining their lives at home. But perhaps by allocating the entire VA campus to projects such as the Bandini Foundation’s, more of them could be.
“A lot of veterans, you ask them how they became homeless, there are multitude of reasons,” said Rosebrock. “Those who serve have just been treated badly.... But now that the issues has been publicly exposed, there will be changes for the greater good.”
As for Anctil, he’s simply appreciative of where he ended up.
“Quite honestly, I never thought I would ever work again because of my age and background,” he said. “[Just having a job] has kind of given me, what you call, self-worth.”