VA pulls grant funds for homeless vet project


Published: Wednesday, June 12, 2013 at 6:06 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, June 12, 2013 at 6:06 p.m.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has chosen to terminate a multi-million-dollar grant awarded to the Alachua County Housing Authority in 2008 for the establishment of a transitional housing project for homeless veterans.

The VA chose to withdraw the grant funding due to "ACHA's inability to build the project and make it operational in a timely manner," according to a housing authority news release.

The total grant award was worth around $20 million, including almost $2 million for construction and additional funding for the program's daily operations over the course of 20 years, The Sun previously reported.

The facility would have housed up to 112 veterans as well as offering two additional beds for night managers who would also be veterans, ACHA Executive Director Herbert Hernandez said.

"The project is dead," he said. "There is no substitute for that grant to do what that grant would have done."

The VA sent a letter to the agency in April informing Hernandez of its plan to withdraw the funding because it didn't consider the program viable, The Sun previously reported. The letter, sent by Jeffery L. Quarles, director of the VA's Grant/Per Diem Program, said ACHA had made "minimal progress toward completion" and cited a May 1 deadline by which the housing authority had indicated it could finish construction.

ACHA responded to the VA's April letter in May explaining why it should be allowed to keep the funding.

Hernandez previously told The Sun he had a difficult time getting a straight answer from Quarles regarding project deadlines.

"I have talked to Mr. Quarles several times," Hernandez previously told The Sun. "It seems as if his reasons have changed depending on when I talk to him."

On Wednesday he told The Sun he was never able to get a straight answer on the deadlines from the VA.

ACHA was ready to break ground on the project but the VA's April letter forced it to halt its construction plans, The Sun previously reported. Hernandez estimated construction would have taken up to 120 days.

The housing authority has dealt with several obstacles over the years as it searched for a site for the facility. Its plan to use the Gainesville Hotel & Conference Center near Tower and Newberry roads drew a backlash from business owners and residents close by, including a lawsuit filed by the owners of Napolatano's restaurant challenging a related County Commission decision, The Sun previously reported.

The now-defunct housing project would have provided temporary housing for homeless veterans in 38 modular homes. It was slated for the site of a formerly planned residential development known as the Villas at 39th on the south side of Northwest 39th Avenue.

The veterans would have participated in a two-year program meant to help them transition out of homelessness.

"Well, of course, it's a huge disappointment given that we know how much need there is for this type of program and this type of housing," Hernandez said. "But there's nothing else that we can do about it at this point. The decision has been made and there's no other appeal or recourse."

Hernandez, who started working for ACHA in February, doesn't plan on doing a post-mortem of the way the housing authority handled plans for the project unless ACHA's board of commissioners asks him to because the staff and some board members were there during the years-long saga and understand the details.

The housing authority staff gave their best shot at explaining why the VA shouldn't withdraw the funding in ACHA's May letter, he said, and the VA didn't agree.

"It goes back to the old golden rule: He who has the gold makes the rules," he said. "It's their money and they have the power to do what they see as the correct thing to do, and we don't have to agree with it."

The housing authority has to look forward to new projects that may come its way, according to Hernandez.

As for the homeless veterans of this community, this opportunity has been lost but the housing authority has been awarded 65 new vouchers for permanent housing for them.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development recently announced its decision to award $60 million to public housing agencies throughout the U.S. to secure permanent housing for homeless veterans through the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing Program.

ACHA was awarded 65 of the HUD-VASH vouchers, which are used to help low-income homeless veterans afford permanent housing.

"We can't dwell on this forever," Hernandez said of the loss of the VA grant.

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

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