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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