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National

Veterans Center Opens In LA After Years Of Controversy

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There are more than 4,000 homeless veterans in Los Angeles, more than any other city, and now a few dozen of them will have a new place to live. It's in a building on the sprawling campus of the VA's West Los Angeles Medical Center. The building officially opened this week. As NPR's Ina Jaffe reports, the ribbon-cutting was the culmination of a decades-long fight over how the property should be used.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

HERMAN KEMP: Bless this building and all who use it.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Chaplain Herman Kemp gave the benediction at the opening of a building that was the answer to a lot of prayers. Known un-poetically as Building 209, it will provide housing and employment services for 65 chronically homeless veterans, both men and women. And as with most real estate deals, it's all about location, said VA Secretary Robert McDonald.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT MCDONALD: What's important here is the proximity of this building to the medical services that are required, and that's why this campus is so special. There are very few places in VA where we have the ability to bring together all of the service of VA in one place to care for the veterans who have served our country.

JAFFE: This is just the beginning of a huge turnaround for the entire West LA Medical Center campus, says 87-year-old Carolina Winston Barrie. Her great-great-aunt donated much of this land to the federal government back in the 1880s.

CAROLINA WINSTON BARRIE: They're going to make it a welcome place for all veterans to feel at home.

JAFFE: The campus used to be a home for aging and disabled soldiers. That's the reason Barrie's great-great-aunt donated the property. But the VA stopped housing veterans there in the 1960s and '70s. Barrie spent decades complaining to the VA that the campus was no longer being used as intended.

BARRIE: It's a fight really for the intention of the deed, for the intention to make a home for veterans. That's what it says. And this has not been a home for veterans. It's been - it's driven veterans away.

JAFFE: At the same time, it welcomed commercial enterprises. The West Los Angeles VA rented out parts of the property for a hotel laundry, a storage space for sets from TV shows, parking lots for school buses and rental cars and the list goes on. Through the Freedom of Information Act, NPR obtained documents indicating that over the course of a decade, those rental deals brought in at least $28 million and maybe more than 40 million. And it turns out they were all illegal, according to a federal judge. But it's still a mystery where the money went. Secretary McDonald says the property deals are now the subject of a criminal investigation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCDONALD: And when the Department of Justice and the FBI's involved, they do their work and we leave them alone.

JAFFE: Meanwhile, McDonald says the plan is to return the VA's West LA campus to what Carolina Winston Barrie's family originally had in mind, which means it's likely to include more housing for homeless vets. Ina Jaffe, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.