LOS ANGELES — An army of volunteers fans across greater Los Angeles to count the homeless — and more than 1 in 10 is a veteran. Los Angeles has long had the largest population of homeless veterans in the country, even though many get a cool reception.
It wasn't always that way. In 1888, 300 acres of land were given to the federal government "to be permanently maintained as a National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers." A VA facility was established, but much of what the site, which eventually became 387 acres, was leased to outside interests having nothing to do with veterans.
The land ultimately became some of the priciest and most coveted in California, with neighborhoods like Brentwood and Westwood closing in. Vets like James Carr, homeless for more than a year, sees a raw deal.
"They don't care about any of this. They want to take this property and turn it into what they want," he said.
In 2011, the veterans and their attorney, Ron Olson, filed a class action lawsuit to force the federal government to honor the original deed.
"You've got politicians going around the country saying it's not right for these young men and women to go abroad and fight for their country and then have to come home and fight for a roof over their head. And yet these same politicians don't make something happen — that's hypocrisy," Olson said.
Olson and his coalition felt they had a slam dunk case, but the Justice Department disagreed, arguing that the agency was within its rights to lease out land meant for veterans. Former Santa Monica City Councilman Bobby Shriver found many of his wealthy and powerful neighbors turned against him when he advocated housing homeless vets in the facility.
"I thought: 'These are empty buildings. Let's put them in the empty buildings.' I thought, 'Who could be against that?' And many people were," Shriver said.
But just two weeks ago, the new Veterans Affairs secretary, Robert McDonald, announced a deal to settle the lawsuit and a plan to end homelessness among veterans in Los Angeles County. The two sides moved from adversaries to potential partners in a matter of weeks.
Veterans like Robert Malone, who was once homeless, said it's about time.
"For crying out loud, we're Americans. Let's help our guys," Malone said. "Let's protect them now."