Unhoused Veterans Sue VA Over Discrimination and Illegal Leases
A new civil rights lawsuit alleges that the VA has denied disabled, unhoused veterans services and illegally leased out land that could be veteran housing.
Disabled, unhoused veterans are suing to force the West LA VA to provide permanent housing and remove noncompliant leases from the West LA VA campus. Fourteen individual plaintiffs and the National Veterans Foundation allege that the VA has violated the Rehabilitation Act — a 1973 federal act which prohibits discrimination based on disability for any programs receiving federal funds — and the West Los Angeles Leasing Act of 2016. The WLA VA has hosted numerous leases deemed illegal on its campus in lieu of veteran housing.
The WLA VA is part of the West Los Angeles Greater Health system (WLAGHS) which incorporates all veteran healthcare sites in LA. The defendants named are VA Secretary Denis McDonough, WLAGHS Director Steven Braverman, and Keith Harris, senior executive of homelessness at the WLAGHS.
The VA Office of the Inspector General — which is required under the West LA Leasing Act of 2016 to review the VA’s leases — has previously ruled that many of the properties leased on the VA campus were illegal. The VA removed some of the leases from the property, but Brentwood School — which occupies the largest area of any of the noncompliant leases — remains on the campus. As of 2021, the OIG has identified seven noncompliant leases.
Plaintiffs say they are afflicted by a wide range of health issues including depression, PTSD, and traumatic brain injuries. This hinders their ability to maintain family and relationships, employment, education, and lastly stable housing, according to the suit. All plaintiffs declare that they cannot continue living in an “institutionalized” setting including the infamously carceral “tiny home” shelters — called sheds in the suit — but that they are forced to choose between that or living back on the street.
After agreeing to a framework for a settlement in the Valentini v. Shinseki lawsuit in 2015, the VA promised to build 1,200 units new units of permanent supportive housing, with 770 by 2022. The suit says that the VA has completely failed to live up to its end of the bargain. The VA has not completed any of the units, though it has built 55 units of housing that were planned before the agreement.
According to the filing, 500 HUD-VASH vouchers — rental assistance vouchers provided by the VA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development — were distributed in 2020, with zero being distributed in 2021. Around half of voucher recipients in LA successfully find landlords willing to accept them.
In the suit, plaintiffs demand that the VA make permanent supportive housing on the West LA VA campus and in nearby apartments available for 3,500 eligible unhoused veterans within six months, with some of the housing including additional services like substance abuse treatment and employment assistance. They are also asking that veterans with disabilities be prioritized for the new housing, and that the VA cease all illegal uses of the land, among other demands.
Plaintiff Deavin Sessom was sexually assaulted while serving in the army, and the continuous trauma and PTSD from his service made it difficult for him to maintain a stable family life. He lost custody of his children after his divorce and became unhoused.
According to the filing, he completed the program at the VA’s Domiciliary — a structured residential program for healthcare and rehabilitation — and was 90 days sober and ready to continue his treatment with the promise of new transitional housing, but his housing fell through. This led to Sessom relapsing into addiction and becoming unhoused again. When he tried to find an apartment within proximity to the West LA VA, he could not find a landlord willing to accept his HUD-VASH voucher.
Sessom lived on Veteran’s Row, until it was swept in November 2021 by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. He got into a tiny home at the West LA VA’s Care, Treatment, and Rehabilitative Services (CTRS) program. He was displaced by the fire at the CTRS site in September.
“[The tiny homes] are not safe. It’s like walking into your prison cell … but without a sink or a toilet,” he says. “If I would have been home that night, I’d have been dead.” He says that every night he goes to sleep, he fears that there may be a fire.
As Knock LA has previously reported, veterans do not receive keys to their own tiny homes, cannot accept visitors, and are subjected to searches every time they return to the site of their home.
The tiny homes have received a staggering level of media attention, particularly after former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger — whose children attended Brentwood School — donated 25 of them in 2021.
Sessom says he told Schwarzenegger on Veterans Day 2022 that the Tiny Homes are hazardous. Schwarzenegger left the conversation without responding and his bodyguards secreted him into a van. “That’s what he does every time he comes down,” Sessom says. “You want to brag about how much you’re gonna help the VA? You didn’t do anything but hurt it.”
Plaintiff Joshua Pettit had a decorated career in the army. He served in the Iraq War, where he was subjected to extremely violent combat. He left the army with an honorable discharge and three Purple Hearts. Consequently, he has knee, back, and hearing issues. Pettit stays in a tiny home and, like other plaintiffs, claims this makes him feel like he is living in an institutionalized setting. “They keep taking away freedoms from us little by little,” he says. According to Pettit, after the accidental electrical fire, the VA attempted to remove personal electronics like televisions and microwaves from tiny homes.
Pettit says that the land leases at the VA “screw veterans over. … Where’s all the money going? Where’s all this money Brentwood School and UCLA is supposed to give to us? It’s not going towards housing veterans.”
Pettit has been seeking mental health services from the VA for 10 years. He says he’s had negative experiences with the social workers, and that they do not do a good job properly explaining the various programs that veterans have access to.
He previously lived on Veteran’s Row, and received a HUD-VASH voucher. Like Sessom, his income is too high for him to qualify for the new VA housing being built, but he does not earn enough to afford housing near the campus on his own.
“Housing stability is like 80% of mental health [treatment]. Straight up, I mean, maybe even more than that,” says Pettit, who suffers from PTSD.
The filing also alleges that the VA discriminates against disabled veterans because some make too much money from their disability pensions to qualify for certain housing. “I’ve been turned down three times when I [otherwise] qualified, just because the supervisor said I make too much money,” says Sessom. He says he makes $3,900 a month from his VA pension, and cannot find employment because of his disability. Still, it is too much to qualify for the new housing being built that will be completed at the soonest by early 2023.
“Here’s the bigger picture. We were promised one thing. We were promised we would get housing. No matter what we would get it. That’s not true. I’ve been turned down because of the amount of money I make,” he says.
In October of this year, the Veterans and Community Oversight and Engagement Board (VCOEB) — a federal advisory committee to the Veterans Affairs administration — affirmed the 2018 audit by the OIG regarding the VA campus leases. Under the West LA Leasing Act of 2016, all leases on the VA campus must “principally benefit veterans and their families,” which the Brentwood School does not do.
“UCLA gives us free tickets if there’s room, and that’s supposed to principally benefit me and my family?” says Pettit.
The VCOEB recommended that the West LA VA either renegotiate its lease with Brentwood School, or terminate it altogether, if it is unable to renegotiate. The board also says that Brentwood School must pay “all of the monetary consideration that it has failed to pay during the term of its lease,” and that the West LA VA should sue the school if it refuses to do so.
A spokesperson for Brentwood School tells Knock LA that “Brentwood School has always met or exceeded all its obligations to the VA, both financial and in-kind.” They stated that their “partnership” underwent “thorough legal review both by the VA and Brentwood School,” and that it is a “true manifestation of the integral role our school plays in supporting VA’s Master Plan vision.”
The West LA VA provided Knock LA with a statement saying that the VA disagrees with the OIG’s 2018 opinion, and that all leases on the West LA property are in compliance with federal law: “VA and OIG disagree as to the legal interpretation of the governing laws with regards to those agreements.” They added that the VCOEB reports directly to Secretary McDonough, and only he can decide whether to accept the VCOEB’s recommendations.
In the VCOEB meeting where it was determined that the OIG recommendations were correct, board member Rob Begland said that “the department’s assertions to the contrary are misplaced,” and that “given substantial public concern about the fairness and legality of the lease to Brentwood School, the department’s continued failure to address the noncompliant nature of the lease discredits efforts to redevelop the campus consistent with the 2022 Master Plan.”
In 2019, former VA secretary Robert Wilkie said in a leaked recording that the Brentwood School lease was a “fraud,” and that Los Angeles has a history of having its land “carved up” by rich Hollywood types. He called Brentwood School the “most exclusive private school in the country..”
Mayoral candidate Rick Caruso — who is currently trailing significantly in the race — has his name on the Caruso Watts Aquatic Center at Brentwood School. Knock LA reached out to Caruso inquiring whether he agreed with the lease being deemed illegal, and he declined to comment. Three of Caruso’s children attended Brentwood School.
The lawsuit includes other leases that the OIG determined were noncompliant — like a parking lot company, the Department of Homeland Security, Caltrans, and BreitBurn Energy Partners — and alludes to the fact that even oil drilling was previously allowed on the campus.
The use of the West LA VA’s land has historically been cannibalized by private entities, and disabled veterans say they’ve been victimized by this choice, given that it has rendered it virtually impossible to access permanent housing. There’s an abundance of resources that veterans could access through the VA, but they are offered in a sporadic and mercurial way. This lawsuit highlights how an institution like the VA prioritizes the needs of privileged benefactors, like Brentwood School, over providing services and housing for chronically unhoused and disabled veterans.
Update: A spokesperson for the Department of Veterans Affairs provided the following statement on the lawsuit: “There is nothing more important to VA than ending Veteran homelessness — both in Los Angeles and across the country. Veteran homelessness in LA has decreased by 6% since 2020, and VA has provided more than 950 permanent housing placements to LA Veterans during this calendar year. VA has also made available more than 130 new units of Veteran housing in the Los Angeles community this year, with 700 more expected in 2023. While we cannot comment on ongoing litigation, we at VA promise that we will not rest until every Veteran has a good, safe, stable home in this country they fought to defend.”