Facility for homeless vets may soon break ground
Published: Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, December 31, 2012 at 7:18 p.m.
After years of setbacks and organized opposition that included a lawsuit, the Alachua County Housing Authority expects to break ground early this year on a transitional housing facility for homeless veterans.
"We'll close on the land, I'm almost 100 percent sure, by the end of the year," Housing Authority Executive Director Gail Monahan said. "It will take 30 days to get permits and then we'll be building."
A contractor, Alachua-based VetAmerica Enterprises, is already in place.
Monahan said the transitional housing development, which will house up to 112 veterans in 38 manufactured homes, should have its first group of residents around July.
It will have been a long time coming.
It was back in 2008 that the Department of Veterans Affairs first approved a $1.9 million grant to go toward land acquisition and construction of the facility and a 20-year agreement to put federal funding toward daily operations.
At that time, the planned location was the Oak Ridge apartment complex in northwest Gainesville. But that fell through and ACHA later turned its attention to an effort to purchase the Gainesville Hotel & Conference Center near Newberry and Tower roads out of foreclosure.
In summer 2011, a divided County Commission approved a permit to locate the facility there in a 3-2 vote. That met with backlash from nearby business owners and residents. The owners of Napolatano's restaurant filed a lawsuit challenging the County Commission's decision.
Members of the county's Veterans Services Advisory Board objected that neither the county nor the Housing Authority had sought their feedback on the project. They also voiced concerns that a hotel was not a suitable location for veterans to live for up to two years, the maximum period they will be able to stay at the facility. Eventually, the bank that owned the hotel decided not to sell it.
Meanwhile, the VA continued to grant the Housing Authority extensions to the deadline to build the project.
So the Housing Authority started over again in the consideration of potential locations.
This time, the county's Veterans Services Advisory Board was consulted every step of the way. By late 2011, they had set their sights on the current location, which is on the south side of Northwest 39th Avenue, a short distance west of Main Street. It's the site where an abandoned residential development known as the Villas at 39th was once planned.
"The Housing Authority has the full support of the veterans community to put this where it is going," said Don Sherry, chairman of the veterans advisory board. "I do not expect public backlash because the veterans community is with them on this."
The VA will screen and select the veterans who live there.
They will be selected, in part, because they intend to work, return to school or go through job training, said Vianne Marchese, the chief of Community Care Services at the North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System.
The operating plan calls for one full-time Housing Authority staff member to be on site 24/7. Clinical social workers will also make on-site visits.
The veterans will receive any needed medical treatment and substance abuse or mental health counseling at VA facilities in Gainesville, Marchese said.
The new Gainesville project comes shortly after a similar facility opened at the Ritz Historic Inn in Ocala. It also comes with the VA at the halfway point of a five-year plan to house all homeless veterans by 2015.
Monahan said the VA has, in the pursuit of that goal, embraced what is known as the "housing-first model."
"You put a roof over someone's head and then they'll be able to make the changes in their life that they need," she said.
Christopher Curry is a Gainesville Sun staff writer.