Answers few as VA threatens to withdraw funding for big housing project for homeless veterans


The Alachua County Housing Authority provided this depiction of a modular home similar to those that would be moved into the new veterans transitional housing site.

Published: Saturday, April 27, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, April 26, 2013 at 7:41 p.m.

The Alachua County Housing Authority is racing to prepare a proposal to persuade the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs not to withdraw its grant funding for a long-planned homeless veterans housing project -- but getting a straight answer from the federal agency's personnel has been difficult.

Facts

Transitional housing programs for homeless veterans:

(Note - this is a list comprising some, but not necessarily all, of the local housing programs available for homeless veterans.)

- Volunteers of America, 34 spaces depending on the facility.
- VETSPACE, 16 spaces.
- Ocala's Ritz Historic Inn (Volunteers of America program), 50 spaces.
- Salvation Army in Ocala, 10 spaces.
- HONOR Center, 45 spaces, for veterans with disabilities, health problems, etc.
- Sunshine Inn, 20 spaces.
- Meridian Behavioral Healthcare, 10-16 spaces, for veterans with mental health or substance abuse issues.

For more information, call the office of Vianne Marches, chief of community care service for the regional VA health system, at 548-1800.

ACHA Executive Director Herbert Hernandez says he has spoken several times with Jeffery L. Quarles, director of the VA's Grant/Per Diem Program, who sent a letter on April 9 informing him of the VA's plan to terminate the grant award because it doesn't consider the housing program viable. But he said he hasn't been able to get a straight answer from Quarles regarding project deadlines.

Quarles' letter said the housing authority has made “minimal progress toward completion,” citing a May 1 deadline by which ACHA had indicated to the VA it could complete construction. The exact deadline for the project's completion has been a point of uncertainty for the housing authority.

“I have talked to Mr. Quarles several times,” Hernandez said. “It seems as if his reasons have changed depending on when I talk to him.”

Guy Liedke, program analyst for the VA National Grant and Per Diem Program Office, declined to comment. Other calls to the VA had not been returned by late Friday.

The ACHA has until May 10 to respond to the VA's letter and explain why the VA shouldn't withdraw the grant. If its argument is persuasive, the VA could decide to continue its original plan to fund the program.

The transitional housing project would provide temporary housing for as many as 112 homeless veterans in 38 modular homes. It would be a two-year program that helps veterans transition from homelessness and would be located on the south side of Northwest 39th Avenue where a planned, but now defunct, residential development called the Villas at 39th originally was intended to go.

The total grant award is worth about $20 million and includes nearly $2 million for construction as well as additional funding to cover the program's daily operations for 20 years, Hernandez said. If the VA withdraws the money, the housing authority plans to search for another funding source, but finding $2 million, let alone a way to cover those long-term expenses, will be difficult.

Hernandez, who became executive director in February, said he thought May 1 was the deadline to show substantial progress, not completion as the VA's letter stated. He said he hasn't been able to find any documents showing the housing authority indicated it would be done by then, although they could exist but would predate his arrival at ACHA.

Hernandez now is working under the assumption there is an Aug. 1 deadline to complete all of the construction expenditures. It would be nice to have a letter from the VA that clearly states the situation, he said, but at this point he's dealing with second-hand information.

The ACHA could have easily met the August deadline, Hernandez said, but the VA's letter forced it to stop focusing on construction plans and turn its attention to preparing a defense explaining why it should keep the funding. The agency has all of the permits it needs and is ready to break ground.

The housing authority has reached out to elected officials and asked them to contact the VA and express their support for this project. Hernandez said he has heard that Quarles told one elected official's staff, the identity of which could not be confirmed, that the housing authority really has a Sept. 30 deadline because that is the end of the federal fiscal year. However, Hernandez said Quarles told the politician's staff the VA doesn't allow anyone to spend money on projects after Aug. 1.

Hernandez said his understanding of the situation indicates Quarles determined in April that the housing authority wouldn't meet that deadline for its project.

He also said Quarles' letter makes it seem as though there is a May 1 deadline, which doesn't seem to exist.

“In my opinion, he misinformed me that it's a May 1 deadline,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez said he worried VA personnel also might not have a good understanding of how modular-home construction works. If they had, he said he thinks it would have been clear how fast the homes could be constructed and how close the housing authority is to completing the project.

Three to five modular houses can be built and three to four of them set onsite per day, he said. Construction would take 120 days at most, he said.

Another misunderstanding between the VA and ACHA might have occurred because of inaccuracies in a form the housing authority submitted to the federal agency.

Kali Blount, chairman of the housing authority, contacted the VA about its letter to explain a document mishap he thought might have been involved in its decision to withdraw funding.

The ACHA submitted a few versions of a form that listed the project as zero percent complete on one version, zero to 50 percent complete on another and showed only a blank in that field on the third, he said. But the housing authority was in step-by-step contact with the VA during that time, so he said he felt the agency should have known how much progress it had made despite the mix-up.

Blount signed off on the documents, which is why he offered to resign if necessary to save the grant funding. The VA hasn't addressed his offer to resign.

“I was just reaching every which way to find some way for them to reconsider,” he said.

While the housing authority works on a response to the VA for why it shouldn't withdraw its funding, the staffs of U.S. Reps. Ted Yoho and Corrine Brown are discussing the situation with the federal agency as well.

Yoho doesn't weigh in personally on casework issues, but his staff has asked the VA to keep its promise to fund this project, said Kelley McNabb, the congressman's press secretary.

“A promise was made,” she said. “We're just asking that they remain accountable.”

Brown said she is waiting for a written explanation from the housing authority about how it plans to complete this project before talking to the VA, although her staff has discussed the issue with the federal agency.

“The VA is not happy that in five years they have not completed the project, and so I'm trying to get a status report on the project,” she said. “Naturally, if you haven't done something in five years, then some other area could use the money.”

But Brown said she understands the housing authority has faced challenges over the years with the program and does think it is needed.

The ACHA already has received five extensions and has requested a sixth, Hernandez said.

Brown said she needs to see a strong case for why the housing authority hasn't been able to complete the project in five years.

The housing project would be forced into an indefinite, and possibly permanent, hiatus if the VA sticks with its plan to cancel the funding, but homeless veterans still are eligible for other locally based programs.

Gainesville, as well as the North Florida/South Georgia region, has undergone a great transformation over the past five years in terms of veteran services, said Vianne Marchese, chief of community care service at the VA's North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System.

In 2008, the Alachua County and Gainesville housing authorities began receiving vouchers from the HUD-VASH, or Department of Housing and Urban Development – VA Supportive Housing program. The Ocala Housing Authority has them, too.

HUD-VASH vouchers provide permanent housing for veterans, and the program has had a sizable impact on the VA's ability to help chronically homeless veterans, Marchese said.

There are also several transitional housing programs available locally that are similar to the one the ACHA hopes to salvage.

The Alachua County and Gainesville housing authorities fight homelessness among veterans from a housing-first perspective, she said. First they get veterans under a roof, and then they work with them to rebuild their lives with help from an array of VA-provided services.

“It really is a change to get them in their own place, and then when we get them in a stable living environment, we're able to connect them with the myriad of services,” she said.

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gainesville.com.

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

▲ Return to Top