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Homeless Vets: From Decrepit Shelter Back To The Streets?

Sharon Claudio, a homeless veteran who served in the Army from 1978 to 1982, came in off the streets more than a year ago, finding shelter at Ignatia House, a rundown building on the grounds of the Armed Forces Retirement Home near N. Capitol Street.

But conditions at the shelter, which is run by a charity called U.S. Vets, quickly became hard to tolerate. Claudio is one of only two women in the facility, she must share a bathroom with a hallway full of men, and she lives in a room with spotty or no heat. The elevator is out for weeks on end. In her basement hallway, only one bank of lights is working, leaving most of the passageway dark. Rat traps reveal the infestation in the building's lower level. The laundry room is locked up, closed after allegations that asbestos flakes were falling from the ceiling.

In a few weeks, when U.S. Vets' lease ends, Ignatia House is scheduled to be vacated, and as of now, its 50 residents have nowhere to go. Claudio and other residents don't know whether to be angry that they are being put out or glad they are escaping from a building some consider barely better than living on the street.

The managers of the shelter put out an alert this week, seeking publicity for their plight and help from D.C. council members in finding housing for Ignatia House's residents, most of whom have substance abuse problems. But while U.S. Vets argues that its predicament is caused in large part by the Retirement Home's refusal to help provide for these homeless veterans, the story is actually a good deal more complicated.

U.S. Vets, which has received more than $79 million in federal grants over the past decade to house more than 2,500 veterans at 11 facilities, mainly on the West Coast, has come under fire from federal auditors for "major financial and operational problems." "There can be no better use of federal funds than for helping our veterans in need," said Gerald Walpin, Inspector General for the Corporation for National and Community Service, which provides Americorps workers at U.S. Vets facilities. "But that good purpose is no excuse for misusing such funds and thus depriving veterans of money allocated to benefit them." U.S. Vets, whose honorary board includes President Jimmy Carter, actor Sidney Poitier and movie director Oliver Stone, concedes that "mistakes were made" but argues that most of the audit's findings were inaccurate or overblown.

U.S. Vets regional director Stephanie Buckley says Ignatia House's residents face a return to the streets because the Retirement Home is more interested in handing over 77 acres of its 270-acre campus to developers than in caring for homeless veterans. A massive and controversial plan to boost the Retirement Home's resources by letting a developer build hundreds of residential units and a hotel on the southern end of its campus--while tearing down a bunch of decrepit buildings, including Ignatia House--is slowly making its way through federal and local regulatory agencies.

"I don't believe it's anyone's objective to create homeless veterans," Buckley says, "but their goal is to move ahead with the development project to provide resources for the 1,500 residents at the home."

Buckley says Ignatia House residents are excluded from all Retirement Home programs and facilities--a golf course, bowling alley, movie theater, PX and post office.

That's correct, says Chris Black, a spokesman for the Retirement Home, noting that it does not accommodate veterans with substance abuse problems. That's U.S. Vets' job: "We care about their mission, and we've been leasing them their building for more than three years, but it's always been understood that they were there temporarily," Black says.

When U.S. Vets' most recent lease expired at the end of January, "we were frankly shocked that they didn't have a plan and weren't transferring their folks to new housing," Black says. "U.S. Vets performs an incredibly important service for a very vulnerable population, but our land and our buildings are all we have. We get no federal appropriation."

Inside Ignatia House, the battle over buildings might as well be taking place on another planet. What matters to people such as Claudio, who works as a nurse's assistant at the nearby VA Hospital, is where they will be after Ignatia closes--a Feb. 28 deadline has now been pushed back to the end of March--and how they must live until then.

"Because we're homeless and indigent doesn't mean we're ignorant," Claudio says. "We were good enough to serve our country and we should be treated as human beings."

Buckley, who works out of Las Vegas, and U.S. Vets' resident program director, Neil Volz, say the Retirement Home has refused to repair Ignatia's elevator and heating and lighting systems.

"The Retirement Home could come down right now and fix this stuff, but after they told us to leave, they stopped all repairs," says Volz, who has worked at Ignatia House since soon after pleading guilty to conspiracy in the Jack Abramoff congressional lobbying scandal. Volz, who was chief of staff to former Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), cooperated with federal investigators and was sentenced to two years probation.

"The Home will be conscientious about making sure the building is safe, but in terms of permanent improvements to a building that's about to be ripped down, that makes no sense," Black says. Under the lease U.S. Vets signed with the Retirement Home, the charity accepted Ignatia House "as is" and assumed responsibility for maintaining the building. Black acknowledged that Retirement Home workers do occasionally provide maintenance services for Ignatia House, but said that was done only as a courtesy.

Claudio lived on the streets and in her car for a time during the three years that she was homeless before moving to Ignatia House. "I felt there was going to be a sense of stability here," she says. "Not for the rest of my life, but long enough for me to get a job and save enough money to get a place of my own.

The bureaucratic battle roars on, but 51 vets are on the verge of being homeless again.

"You cannot know what not knowing if you're going to have a home does to your psyche," Claudio says. "We're on pins and needles as we're trying to rebuild and revive."

By Marc Fisher |  February 12, 2008; 7:09 AM ET
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Comments

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Why don't these veterans have jobs after them come home from the service? I applied for a Government job a year to so ago and was denied it because I'm not a veteran but I have many years of experience, a college degree and a paralegal certificate. Seems they're given first choice on jobs, get discounts on mortgage rates, everything is handed to them on a platter but they end up on the streets or in shelters. They've got nobody to blame but themselves. Stop running these bleeding heart 'poor pitiful me' stories, Marc.

Posted by: A few questions.... | February 12, 2008 8:42 AM

A few questions.... "Why don't these veterans have jobs after them come home from the service?"

You have to understand that traditional VA benifits are largely restricted to veterans who recieved honorable discharges. The vast majority of homeless "vets" do not meet this standard. As part of my job I have had several meetings with managers of homeless vets programs who told me that nearly 50% of their clients had washed out of basic training. Only about 25% had an honerable discharge and they were quickly transisioned into traditional VA programs.

Posted by: Woodbridge VA | February 12, 2008 9:42 AM

Woodbridge: I come from a large family with several veterans in the mix. They were drafted and did their duty proudly. My father, 3 of his brothers, and two brothers-in-law served in WWII. Both of my mother's brothers served, one in the South Pacific and one in Italy. One cousin died at Normandy and is buried in France. Two uncles served in Korea. Two cousins served in VietNam. Several did peace-time duty. By the time we got to the Gulf War we had run out of service-age family to serve. All of these veterans (save the one who died at Normandy) came home, were gainfully employed, married, raised families, owned homes. If they can do it, why can't these people in the run-down shelters? I've always felt if a veteran comes back a little screwed up, they were screwed up before they went into the service. Maybe the military should be more selective about who they take in the first place.

Posted by: A few questions... | February 12, 2008 10:02 AM

The story is an absolute disgrace.

At the very least, the property owners should be forced to carve out a small portion of their planned new development to house these veterans. Also, as an incentive, the DC government should consider eliminating the property owner's tax obligations for the property that is set aside for these veterans. We need to build tax-free empowerment zones in our capital city to encourage investment, and at the same time, take care of those who have served our country.

The sad irony is that these veterans served to protect America and now our own laws, including the stupid so called "War on Drugs" have made them prisoners without any hope.

Posted by: Aaron Burr | February 12, 2008 10:09 AM

Wait.. do you want the Ignatia House (built in 1954) retained or do you want the site to be redeveloped?

As a structure/campus that is on or is eligible for listing on the National register of Historic Places, among the federal and local regulatory agencies that are reviewing the undertaking are the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the District of Columbia State Historic Preservation Office.

Now do you want it redeveloped?

Posted by: Saye | February 12, 2008 11:22 AM

Woodbridge VA: Are you telling us that anybody who is Dishonorably discharged is allowed to call themselves a "vet" and people actually think they are entitled to veteran's benefit's? People who wash out in boot camp can call themselves a "vet"? They washed out! They didn't serve! Heck, I was on a military base last year so I guess I am a "vet" too, right?

Save the benefits for the people who earned them. I am happy to pay. All the wanna-be's can get a job like real adults do and stop expecting the rest of us to take care of them.

The words are "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness". The key word there is "Pursuit", which means YOU go get it ... I don't have to give it to you.

And for Mr. Aaron Burr: Why don't you buy the land and give it to them yourself?

Posted by: NoVA | February 12, 2008 12:49 PM

NoVA -- I am not passing judgement one way or another. I am simply explaining part (by no means all) of the problem. The VA has one criteria for what constitutes a veteran and many of these programs have another. But keep in mind, these are generally people who need help the most. If they were not covered by one program, they would be picked up by another. At the end of the day we are not going to let people starve on the streets. If calling a bootcamp washout a veteran makes it a liitle easier to raise money for the program, I have no real objection.

BTW, I retired from the NG Infantry after 20 years.

Posted by: Woodbridge VA | February 12, 2008 1:44 PM

Those of you who do not know, the people at Ignatia House are not all substance abusers. How we ended up homelesss and disabled is of no consequence. Many here have been deemed unemployable, as they suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, depression, bipolar and the like, brought on by the travesties of war, and when they came back home, they were not given the proper treatment. Some still wake up at night, screaming, as the war is still going off in their heads. Be reminded that this is forty plus years later. We are veterans and hold our heads up high, regardless of how you think of us. Talk with your congress people and your senators. We are just as viable as the other veteran population and will not be deterred by what you think of us!!!!!!!

Posted by: Faye | February 13, 2008 11:57 AM

Faye, your point is so well taken. Since privacy is an issue, we will only hear about programs like substance abuse. We won't hear about mental illness that often accompanies substance abuse or brings it on.

And of course, we won't hear about mental health in general because even now, in many environments, the subject is taboo. Most people don't understand things like PTSD. The "get over it, I did" attitude is more pervasive than we would think it would be in a country that claims to be educated.

But I guess that is just one more chink in our own educational and cultural armor, isn't it? We aren't educated enough. And obviously, we don't adequately take care of our Vets, our ill, and our homeless.

Posted by: kgotthardt | February 13, 2008 6:43 PM

If so many vets are having problems after getting discharged, maybe the military needs to do a better job of transitioning them to civilian life. After serving their country and risking life and limb, isn't it the very least we owe our brave men and women? Also, this no longer our parent's and grandparent's America. Our economy is so skewed now to the well-off that a returning vet (or civilian) can't afford to eke out a nice, middle-class existence, buy a home, raise a family and get a pension on one job anymore. We need to bring back the GI bill, give full benefits without strings to ANYONE serving honorably and provide the best mental health counseling to those re-entering civilian life from a combat theatre.

Posted by: Duffy Johnson | February 17, 2008 8:36 AM

To say that all the vets at Ignatia House, are substance abusers or to imply the same is an injustice. For Marc Fisher to have printed these comments in his column was very hurtful. We have vets here who have regular jobs, attend college and one eventually taught at UDC. Also, this program is not a shelter, but a permanent housing program. We were painted as bums and misfits. This could not be further from the truth.

Posted by: Malik | February 18, 2008 10:04 PM

I was shocked to read some of the comments, but you don't have enough space for me to view my opinion. My father, brother and I served our country. I'm an intelligent black female with a college education and 20 years with the telephone company. I became homeless after several falls due to my service connected injury. I lost my home due to no income. .I've spent these past seven years struggling for assistance. Unfortunately I'm disabled now after a total left knee replacement. I've shared housing with the same Vet's you're labeling as drug addicts and basic training misfit's. Before you judge, get the facts. My brother spent 15 years in the Army serving in Germany, Panama, and Desert Storm. He suffers from PTSD. If you want to label us, label us as PROUD VETERANS.

Posted by: Inez | February 19, 2008 1:44 AM

I was shocked to read some of the comments, but you don't have enough space for me to view my opinion. My father, brother and I served our country. I'm an intelligent black female with a college education and 20 years with the telephone company. I became homeless after several falls due to my service connected injury. I lost my home due to no income. .I've spent these past seven years struggling for assistance. Unfortunately I'm disabled now after a total left knee replacement. I've shared housing with the same Vet's you're labeling as drug addicts and basic training misfit's. Before you judge, get the facts. My brother spent 15 years in the Army serving in Germany, Panama, and Desert Storm. He suffers from PTSD. If you want to label us, label us as PROUD VETERANS.

Posted by: Inez | February 19, 2008 1:48 AM

I work at the soldier's home. There are residential dorms with beds, showers, etc located all over the campus, there are many buildings on campus where those vets could be moved to, many were built to house veterans in years past, also including many large houses/estates on the soldier's home property. They should get the same people that handled Walter Reed Involved. The shelter is included in plans for the new construction, why should they have to move off campus, they should already have a place for those veterans to go (on campus)

Posted by: A | February 25, 2008 3:39 PM

To whom it may concern, I am interested in developing a program for homeless vetarans in the Atlanta, Ga. area that will provide shelter, counseling,retraining for new job skills.We are seeking sources for funding that will enble our organization to provide the necessary resources to accomplish in restoring our vetarans.we are seeking serious sources that can help us to achieve this task, we can be reached at lordgj@bellsouth.net Thank you, Greg johnson

Posted by: Gregory johnson | April 27, 2008 6:28 PM

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