Marc Fisher, Metro Columnist

Shelter's Veterans Fear a Future Out on the Streets

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

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 U.S. Armed Forces Retirement Home near North Capitol Street.

But conditions at the shelter, which is run by the charity 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. 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.

Managers of the shelter last week sought publicity for their plight and help from D.C. Council members in finding housing for Ignatia House's residents, many 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 the past decade to house more than 2,500 veterans at 11 facilities, has come under fire from federal auditors for "major financial and operational problems." The auditors issued a report questioning whether more than $500,000 in federal money was spent properly.

"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 for 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 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 controversial plan to boost the retirement home's resources by letting developers build hundreds of residential units and a hotel on the campus -- while tearing down decrepit buildings, including Ignatia House -- is slowly making its way through 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 Christine Black, a spokeswoman 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."

What matters to such people as Claudio, who works as a nurse's assistant at the nearby V.A. Hospital, is where they will be after Ignatia closes -- a Feb. 28 deadline has 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 and U.S. Vets' 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 pleading guilty to conspiracy in the Jack Abramoff congressional lobbying scandal. Volz, who was chief of staff to former representative Bob Ney (R-Ohio), cooperated with investigators and was sentenced to two years' probation.

The retirement 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 U.S. Vets' lease, the charity accepted Ignatia House "as is."

The bureaucratic battle roars on, but 50 vets are on the verge of being homeless again.

Claudio was homeless for three years before moving to Ignatia House. "You cannot know what not knowing if you're going to have a home does to your psyche," she says. "We're on pins and needles as we're trying to rebuild and revive."

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