Homeless Vets Are in the Lurch

By Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A dilapidated shelter for homeless veterans is set to be leveled to make way for development on the sprawling grounds of the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Northwest Washington, leaving a nonprofit veterans group scrambling to find a new place for 50 men and women to live by the end of next month.

Employees of U.S. Vets, which operates the shelter, were notified by retirement home officials shortly before Christmas that they would have to vacate the building by the end of this month, when their lease expires. Late last week, the home granted a one-month extension but said no further reprieves will be given.

"We're not evicting them. Their lease is up," said Christine Black, a communications consultant for the home. "They have known this all along."

But shelter officials said they expected the retirement home to find another spot for the homeless veterans on its large campus. "At no time over the course of four-and-one-half years did we anticipate being displaced," said Stephanie Buckley, regional director of the U.S. Veterans Initiative, the nonprofit group that runs U.S. Vets as a collaboration with Cloudbreak Development, a California-based special-needs housing developer. "We never thought we'd be faced with that."

U.S. Vets has been working "arduously" to find a new location elsewhere in the city, thus far without success, Buckley said.

Black said the group has ignored past deadlines to move, and she pointed to a critical audit that she said "raised a real red flag" about the veterans group and its connections with the for-profit Cloudbreak.

Caught in the middle of the dispute are 50 veterans living at Ignatia House, all of them with honorable discharges, many of them with substance-abuse problems, Buckley said. Some said they never felt quite welcome on the edge of the retirement home.

"They never wanted us, anyway," said Maurice Tucker, 53, an Air Force veteran who said he has been living at Ignatia for two years as he recovers from drug and health problems. "We never felt welcome here. They don't fix the boilers. We've kind of been freezing here."

Under a plan awaiting final approval, the 50-year-old building would be demolished in preparation for developing a 77-acre parcel at the home with a mix of condominiums, apartments, medical office space and a boutique hotel. The income generated by the project would pay for improved medical and living facilities for the 1,100 veterans who reside at the historic 155-year-old retirement home, officials said.

The home receives no direct money from the federal government and instead relies on a trust fund drawn from service members' pay checks to operate. Faced with bankruptcy in recent years, the home developed a master plan allowing the development of large parcels of the 272-acre property.

That plan will come before the National Capital Planning Commission this spring. If approved, demolition and other work could begin this summer on the 77 acres.

The plan includes a requirement to build a 100-bed shelter for homeless veterans. U.S. Vets is seeking to be part of the redevelopment and had expected to be able to move from Ignatia into that or another facility on the property. "Every time we thought a deal was imminent, something came up," Buckley said.

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