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After Years Of Wrangling, VA To Provide Vets Housing On West LA Campus

Some homeless veterans with mental illnesses in Los Angeles sued the VA. They wanted housing on the sprawling campus of the VA medical center in West LA so they could access the treatment they needed.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The Department of Veterans Affairs has settled a landmark lawsuit brought by homeless vets with mental illnesses. They wanted housing on the sprawling VA Medical Center campus in West Los Angeles so that they could access the treatment they needed. After more than three years of legal wrangling, it looks like the vets will get the help they need. NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: At the center of the dispute were nearly 400 acres and an affluent section of West Los Angeles. It's the VA's largest medical center. The campus also has a lot of undeveloped land and vacant buildings. Over the years, it's made it attractive to both commercial developers and to advocates for homeless vets. At a news conference yesterday, VA Secretary Robert McDonald said the settlement will result in a new plan for the property with housing for homeless veterans.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

ROBERT MCDONALD: Including underserved populations, such as female veterans, aging veterans and those who are severely physically or mentally disabled.

JAFFE: Los Angeles County has the largest number of homeless veterans in the nation, and the homeless vets struggling with mental illnesses and brain injuries deserve all the support we can give them, said Ron Olson, one of the lead attorneys for the plaintiffs.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

RON OLSON: Every one of these clients answered the highest calling of their country, and they came home worse for it. I think we owe them a massive effort to meet the needs that they have today.

JAFFE: Meeting the needs of veterans, however, was not the legal sticking point in this case. It was a bunch of commercial rental deals on the campus that had nothing to do with veterans. An NPR investigation found that the VA has taken in at least $28 million and perhaps more than $40 million from such enterprises as a hotel laundry and a storage facility for the sets of TV shows. A federal judge ruled the rental deals were illegal. But the government appealed, and there things stood until McDonald took over as VA secretary.

MCDONALD: I became familiar with the lawsuit, and immediately as I did, I said, this doesn't make any sense.

JAFFE: So part of the settlement is a so-called exit strategy to get rid of the commercial enterprises that aren't involved in serving veterans. McDonald said the department has begun an accounting of these rental deals to figure out exactly how much money came in and where it went. That is likely to take longer than the single month it took to hammer out this settlement. McDonald says he had no time to waste.

MCDONALD: The president has committed to ending veterans' homelessness by December 31. So I'm not a good cabinet secretary if I don't get this done.

JAFFE: And McDonald says he can't get it done without helping the nation's largest population of homeless veterans here in Los Angeles. Ina Jaffe, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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