The row of 30-some tents stretching down San Vicente Boulevard in front of the West L.A. Veterans Administration campus just off the 405 Freeway doesn’t resemble many other Los Angeles encampments. The tents are huge and the space around them is kept pristine by their occupants. Then, there are the American flags adorning all the tents.
This is Veterans Row, and its residents are angry.
“All of that land is just sitting there,” says Reginald Smith, a Marine Corps veteran who gestures to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs’ West L.A. property sitting just behind an imposing black iron fence. Meanwhile, Smith says, “every day, 22 veterans die because of homelessness, mental health issues. The costs are big.”
Veterans Row started with a donation of tents to the West L.A. VA by the conservative activist group Judicial Watch. Due to the size of the tents, VA officials had rejected the donations, says Rob Reynolds, a formerly homeless veteran who now advocates on behalf of other veterans struggling with housing issues. Veterans were able to receive the tents directly after the donation was rejected.
“We call it Veterans Row to get rid of the Skid Row stigma,” Reynolds says. “It just goes to show that if they were given the tools in the first place—a place to stay, somewhere to get stable, dumpsters, all that—they can clean up and take care of themselves.”
The tents offer the veterans a semblance of home, while also reminding the public about their ongoing fight with the Veterans Administration behind them. Inside, the tents contain couches, book shelves, potted plants, and cots. Residents are assigned to a rotating list of tasks, including sweeping, taking out the trash, and keeping watch. They even adhere to a chain of command. “They’re running it like a patrol base in Iraq,” says Reynolds, himself an Iraq War veteran.
In response to a request for comment, a VA spokesperson pointed to the newly sanctioned tent city on the West L.A. campus, which was approved in April amid the pandemic. “This is the first time in the VA’s history where we have had this opportunity for Homeless Veterans to fall under the Care, Treatment, Rehabilitation Services,” chief of communications Steve Ruh said. The American Legion has referred to the sanctioned tent city on the VA’s grounds as an “internment camp.”
The 388-acre parcel of land, located between the affluent communities of Brentwood and Westwood, has long been a locus of controversy. The expansive campus came into public possession after California landowner and socialite Arcadia Bandini de Stearns Baker deeded it to the federal government as a home for disabled soldiers in 1887.
“This was a fully functional city within the county of Los Angeles,” Carolina Winston Barrie, the great-great-niece of de Baker, said in a 2012 interview with NPR. “It had everything—a post office, the trolley station.” She noted that there were “150 acres under cultivation. Orange trees all over the place. You can’t see an orange tree anymore.”
Over the decades, the site fell into neglect while VA officials opened up the land to commercial and non-profit use. In 2013, a federal judge ruled that the VA had misused the area by allowing non-veteran related tenants on the land, including the laundry facility for Marriott Hotels, production set storage for 20th Century Fox, and a local soccer club. Brentwood School, a $40,000-a-year K-12 private school, was faulted for running a 20-acre athletic complex on the property.
These problems persisted years later. A 2018 federal audit found that more than 60 percent of the campus’s land-use agreements were illegal or improper, citing a dog park, Red Cross offices, a Shakespeare festival, and a parrot sanctuary. That same year, an operator of a parking lot located on the property pleaded guilty to bribing a VA official with nearly $300,000 as he pocketed $11 million in unreported revenues.
“A lot of what’s going on here ties right into the pay-for-play corruption that you see going on at L.A. City Hall,” says Reynolds, drawing a connection to the ongoing FBI corruption probe that has alleged improper ties between L.A. City government officials and real estate developers.
Veterans face homelessness at a disproportionately high rate compared to the general population, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, but they’ve also seen the biggest boost in local, state, and federal funding over the past decade. Los Angeles has seen a 60 percent decrease in homelessness among veterans from 2009 to present. Still, 3,902 homeless veterans were reported in the 2020 Homeless Count.
Reynolds contends that the VA is still not doing enough to bring in the vets who struggle to get off the streets. This leaves him and the others on Veterans Row to do outreach and help others get the help they need.
“It’s forcing the VA’s hand to do its job, because now that we’re bringing them here and passing them the paperwork, you don’t have a choice, you have to start doing something,” he says. “And it’s about time, because this is just ridiculous that it went on this long.”
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