Friday, May 29

Unproductive school-sponsored veteran facilities need to be held accountable

UCLA and the Brentwood School made a commitment to help veterans when they leased property from Veterans Affairs – it's high time they both came through on that commitment and delivered the services that veterans expect and need access to here in Los Angeles. (Amy Dixon/Photo editor)

No community in Los Angeles faces the challenges veterans do. Their scars, mental and physical, make reintegration into civilian life a daily struggle. But what’s worse than not helping them is agreeing to and then giving them the cold shoulder.

Congress passed a law in 2016 allowing the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to lease its federal property on Wilshire Boulevard to third-party entities for 10 years. These VA Partners, including UCLA and the Brentwood School, were mandated to provide programs that principally benefit veterans.

The Brentwood School’s services include veteran access to athletic facilities and educational programs. For its part, UCLA has established a family wellness center for veterans, a legal clinic and recently a recovery center for treating those with substance use disorder.

But both institutions’ services have continually come under scrutiny.

A 2018 report from the Office of the Inspector General found the VA had failed to uphold multiple terms of the lease agreement. Eleven of the organizations the VA had leased to, including the Brentwood School, were found not to have been providing veteran-centric programs. Brentwood consistently has made its athletic facilities unavailable to veterans. UCLA itself has faced criticism for the limited and inconsistent services its legal clinic provides veterans.

The fact that veterans are being mistreated in LA is hardly up for debate. The city has around 3,900 homeless veterans, the country’s highest number. The impact of the VA’s failure is sobering: Seventeen veterans kill themselves every day. The need for UCLA and the Brentwood School to provide veterans quality care and services is clear, and it’s time they fulfilled their promises to do so in the first place.

UCLA’s legal clinic for veterans has been the object of great frustration for quite some time. The clinic functions as a semester-long class for law students to advise veterans about benefits and citation cases. The clinic is run with the help of those students, two faculty co-directors and a paralegal. But the clinic has extremely limited take-in hours and only provides legal services for those with citations like jaywalking or those seeking benefits from the VA.

“The legal clinic offered by UCLA has a limited presence on the VA campus, has limited access for veterans and limited services offered to veterans,” said Dan Garcia, a veteran who is a director of Vets Advocacy, a nonprofit representing veterans.

The clinic is also characterized by long delays in responding to veterans’ cases.

“The legal services are undermanned, and the people who are there are overworked,” said Richard Munoz, third-year sociology major and veteran. “When you call a legal clinic, you need services now, not three months from now.”

Jonathan Varat, UCLA’s chief liaison to the VA, said the legal clinic’s purpose is misunderstood, as it was never intended to function as a full-time law firm for veterans. But this is a paltry excuse.

As a “veteran-centric service,” UCLA’s legal clinic should geared toward meeting the needs and expectations of veterans in West LA, rather than simply existing as lip service or a law school program.

“There’s clearly a misperception between veterans and UCLA,” Garcia said. “Given their own described limitations, this clinic isn’t what veterans really need or want.”

Similarly, the Brentwood School has failed to meet expectations of services for veterans. The school has consistently faltered in its promise to provide scholarships for veterans’ families. The OIG report also found veterans have had great difficulty gaining access to Brentwood’s sports facilities, facing extremely long wait times or being barred from using the services altogether.

Caleb Gonzales, fourth-year applied linguistics student and veteran, said he and other veterans attempting to use the Brentwood baseball amenities have “more or less been denied.”

The assistant head of the Brentwood School, Gennifer Yoshimaru, defended the school’s progress, noting an online registration form has simplified veterans’ access to the athletic facilities.

But online registration forms aren’t cutting it, especially for the veterans who rely on these centers to actually serve them like they claim to. Brentwood isn’t fulfilling its lease agreement by providing athletic facilities veterans can’t take advantage of. The school’s administrators shouldn’t need a kick in the rear end every couple of years to remind them of that principal obligation.

Both institutions committed to providing veteran-centric programs, but are falling short. Veterans rely on these facilities to support them and that means we should expect more accountability and better resource commitment from these veterans’ programs.

Certainly, it’s without question that the services offered by UCLA and Brentwood have immensely benefited veterans. UCLA’s family and wellness center, which Varat says served more than 7,000 veterans since 2017, is an example of the kind of community reintegration veterans need.

But the reality is UCLA and Brentwood have been underperforming. While deflecting criticism may be a good public relations move, it doesn’t address the continued struggle that characterizes the lives of Los Angeles veterans.

West LA can be a community willing to go the extra mile for veterans and make recovery and reintegration a reality for those who have given their all to protect us. UCLA and Brentwood had and continue to have that opportunity.

It’s time they stopped squandering it.

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