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.
Ignatia House, once a nunnery for sisters caring for veterans and later a guest house, was rented to U.S. Vets at a discounted rate on an “as is” basis, which meant that the home was not responsible for maintaining the building. U.S. Vets did not want to spend money on improvements in a building meant as a temporary home.
The building has sunk into disrepair, with an elevator out of commission for weeks, darkened hallways and little heat.
“Ignatia House was always intended as a step into entering into a long-term lease” in one of the other properties on the campus, said Thomas R. Cantwell Jr., a founder and former executive director of the U.S. Veterans Initiative.
Cantwell also heads the for-profit Cantwell-Anderson and its subsidiary Cloudbreak, which holds the lease on Ignatia House. An audit last year by the Corporation for National and Community Service, which oversees AmeriCorps and other networks of nonprofit service organizations, said the vets group has had a number of “less-than-arms-length transactions” with Cantwell-Anderson. The audit also questioned whether $500,000 in grant money was spent and accounted for properly in 2006.
Black said the retirement home is aware of the audit. “It raises concerns that they’re not following the rules,” she said. “We don’t think it’s good responsibility when they ignore deadlines.”
Cantwell said steps are being taken to address the concerns raised by the audit. “It certainly has nothing to do with the situation in the District of Columbia,” he said.
U.S. Vets describes itself as the largest nonprofit organization in the country dedicated to helping homeless and at-risk veterans. “U.S. Vets tonight will have 2,000 veterans in beds in six states,” Cantwell said. “This is solely because of the huge leverage that the private sector has raised.”
He said it was “unconscionable” that the retirement home could not find room for 50 homeless veterans. “It seems fundamentally wrong. Veterans are veterans.”
Black said no other sites are available on the campus and suggested it was unfair for U.S. Vets to paint the home as the villain. “It’s very frustrating to have them point the finger of blame at the Armed Forces Retirement Home, which has bent over backwards to help,” she said. “No good deed goes unpunished.”
For veterans at Ignatia House, the dispute leaves them facing an uncertain future after March 31.
“Once you fall through the cracks, it’s hard to get back up,” said Grover Miller, 65, a Navy veteran who said he lost job as cabdriver after being arrested for driving while intoxicated.
Love Smith, 64, an Air Force veteran, is resigned to leaving. “To me, it was better than sleeping in the park,” he said.
Smith said it was no surprise that the shelter was closing to make way for development. “You know doggone well they’re not going to mess with that,” he said.