Vet's housing program on borrowed time

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NORTHFIELD — Bob Lowder arrived at the Veterans' Place about a year ago.

As a member of the U.S. Navy Construction Battalion, Lowder served in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968. Afterward he came to Vermont, first to become a farmer, then to run a print shop. More recently he had some tough times living alone in Burlington.

"I had pretty much turned into a hermit. I spoke to my neighbors, but only when I had to," Lowder said.

His brother stepped in and decided he wasn't in a good situation, Lowder said, and with a referral from the Department of Veterans Affairs, Lowder came to the two-story building next to Northfield Middle and High School.

Two dozen veterans currently live in the Northfield transitional housing facility. In the eight years since its founding, more than 240 veterans have gone through the program. However, changes in a federal grant program could put the future of the Veterans' Place in jeopardy.

This year the Department of Veterans Affairs required all organizations nationwide to reapply for funding. The change is part of an effort to reorganize initiatives that serve veterans who struggle with homelessness. Any organizations that were not accepted would lose their VA funding.

The Veterans' Place initially learned it hadn't been selected for continued federal funding. Now the VA has offered a one-year extension for all grant recipients nationwide, meaning the Veterans' Place and others can continue to operate through September 2018.

But people involved with the Veterans' Place remain worried about the future.

Two blocks down the street from Northfield's only traffic light, the proud white clapboard building sits up a slight hill. The 1850s-era building, formerly a hospital and assisted living facility, now serves as substance-free temporary housing for up to 26 veterans in single or double rooms.

Patch, a mostly white dog with a black spot over one eye who belongs to one of the facility's two full-time staff members, sits in a chair by the front door and greets people with a bark or two. Sgt. Broccoli, a long-haired dark tabby cat left behind by a former resident, stalks the halls.

On a recent sunny afternoon, a few residents sat in chairs on the porch visiting with each other.

Jim Sonoma, 73, a Vietnam veteran with close shaved hair and moccasin slippers, watered the flowers in a box on the railing.

Sonoma, who has lived at the Veterans' Place for a year, said he loves it there.

"Let me count the ways," he said.

As classical music played softly in the background in his tidy room, Sonoma recounted how he came to the Veterans' Place.

He arrived after traveling around the country, sleeping in a tent and visiting family members. Now he keeps busy with a part-time job and volunteering at the senior center. He is taking a class in Middle Eastern studies at nearby Norwich University.

In the large basement kitchen, a part-time cook was reorganizing a freezer chest. The facility provides three meals a day during the week. On weekends, residents take turns cooking for the group. At night the kitchen is locked up, but there is a stash of cold cereal for vets who want a midnight snack.

As the cook sorted frozen food, a few residents wandered in and out of the kitchen. One came back out to give a treat to Patch, who waited patiently in a chair just outside the kitchen door.

Many men who stay at the Veterans' Place come via referrals from the VA. Some come directly from receiving medical services through the VA, according to the Veterans' Place staff. The facility runs vans several days a week to the VA center in White River Junction.

The federal grant program funds veterans to stay at the Northfield organization for up to two years, during which time they are to find permanent living arrangements.

Two full-time and two part-time staff members run the facility — providing three meals a day, laundry and other daily needs, and helping residents track down places to live.

According to Karen Boyce, administrative manager of the Veterans' Place, losing VA funding would be a huge hit to the eight-year-old organization. Three-quarters of the facility's budget comes from a grant per diem program, she said. The organization needs about $500,000 to operate each year, according to Boyce.

Boyce sees the facility as a place where veterans who don't have homes can stay to get their feet underneath them. While they live at the Northfield home, they have access to food, hygiene products, linens, laundry facilities and a well-stocked storeroom of donated used clothing. Meanwhile, staff help them look for more permanent living arrangements.

The Veterans' Place has relied on the VA grant per diem program to fund its operations, in addition to some donations and other grants, according to Boyce.

After the VA put out a call for recipients of the grant per diem program to reapply for funding, the Veterans' Place put in an application in early April.

Kevin Casey, the VA's coordinator for services for homeless veterans in New England, said the reapplication process was an effort to reorganize the program to ensure that the homeless services available for veterans in certain areas meet veterans' needs.

"We're trying to change the program, change the thinking and change the approach," Casey said.

He said organizations that were not going to be accepted through the reapplication process will have a chance to see their scores later, in the hopes they can improve their applications next year.

One key element in the reapplication process related to an effort to lower the barriers that might keep homeless veterans from accessing housing. The VA advised against having requirements for veterans regarding their income, employment or a set period of sobriety.

Boyce said she began to suspect the Veterans' Place hadn't been selected early this summer, when administrators weren't contacted by the VA about a second round of applications. They learned early this month they had not been picked — shortly before the VA announced the one-year funding extension.

The Veterans' Place is one of four organizations in Vermont using the VA grant program to serve homeless veterans, according to staff for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

Sanders, a longtime member and former chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, argued against cutting off veterans' housing programs funded through the grant program.

In June, Sanders sent a letter to VA Secretary David Shulkin, urging him not to eliminate grant funding to the Veterans' Place and another program in Vermont. According to Sanders' staff, the senator spoke with Shulkin by phone about the program in July.

In a statement recently, the senator said that although it's important to ensure veterans are able to access housing without barriers, it's important to support those who are seeking out places to support them in their sobriety.

"While I certainly understand the need to house homeless veterans without any preconditions, it is equally important that we take into account the needs of the veterans who want to stay in facilities that support their efforts toward sobriety," Sanders said.

Boyce expects the Veterans' Place will learn more about why the VA initially decided not to fund the organization later this year.

The facility doesn't have a required period of sobriety before a veteran comes in, nor does it have income or employment standards for residents.

Boyce said the Veterans' Place would continue to be a substance-free facility. She estimated that between a third and half of the residents have a background of substance abuse, and many come to Northfield directly from a VA treatment center. While at the Veterans' Place, all residents are expected to abstain from drugs and alcohol.

In general, if a resident is found to be drinking or using drugs, the staff will set up a plan to help that person avoid substances. It's rare that somebody is thrown out for using, Boyce said. However, she said the organization used to have stricter policies about substances and has loosened its rules.

"That's our moral beliefs, as far as having the house be a substance-free safe environment for these guys," Boyce said. "That's what they count on, and that's what I want to be able to offer to them."

In the future, Boyce said, she'd like to find more funding sources outside of the VA per diem grant program. That would allow more flexibility in how the organization works with residents and would allow veterans to stay longer than the two-year period the grants support, she said.

For the time being, the Veterans' Place staffers are relieved the facility will continue to receive funding until next year. To get VA grants beyond that time, they will need to apply again.

Since arriving at the Veterans' Place a year ago, Lowder has found himself coming out of his shell. Now he sometimes drives the van on trips to the VA in White River Junction. He also is helping to get a wood shop started, a longtime hobby of his.

The best part of the Veterans' Place? The camaraderie, Lowder said.

"That's really what I needed to get myself out of my hole," he said.

Elizabeth Hewitt is the criminal justice reporter for VTDigger. She can be contacted at ehewitt@vtdigger.org.

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