Housing for Homeless Veterans Is Planned for Ex-Walter Reed Site

By Mikayla Bouchard – The New York Times

WASHINGTON — The hallways of the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which cared for generations of soldiers, have been quiet since the hospital closed in 2011 and merged with the nearby Bethesda Naval Hospital. But a deal being negotiated by the Army and the city of Washington might give the historic hospital a renewed purpose: housing veterans who might otherwise be homeless.

A national nonprofit that focuses on housing and homelessness plans to renovate a series of single-occupant apartments and redesign the common areas. The makeover will include 75 efficiency apartments, a number that harks back to 1909 when the hospital first opened and had room for 75 patients.

The housing would be the only veteran-focused aspect of a redevelopment plan for 66.5 acres of the sprawling campus in the northwest part of the city.

It comes as the White House has called for an end to homelessness among veterans by the end of 2015. The latest estimate from the Department of Housing and Urban Development said there were 49,900 homeless veterans in the country in January 2014. Mayors across the country have pledged to meet the Obama administration’s challenge. In Houston and New Orleans, that goal has already been accomplished.

“We stand by our pledge,” President Obama said during a speech last month in Pittsburgh at the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “We are going to keep at it until every veteran who has fought for America has a place to call home in America.”

Help USA, which was founded almost 30 years ago by Andrew M. Cuomo, now the governor of New York, has started veterans’ programs in four states. The organization’s president and chief executive, Thomas Hameline, said that a base in Washington would be a capstone of that work.

“It’s an iconic setting,” Mr. Hameline said of Walter Reed.

The closing of the former Walter Reed location was recommended in 2005 by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, part of a wider move by the Defense Department to streamline budgets and consolidate bases. Walter Reed came under fire in 2007, when The Washington Post exposed the deteriorating living conditions and the bureaucracy facing patients trying to get treatment.

The new apartments will be “permanent supportive housing,” meaning tenants sign a lease and stay as long as they like. They will pay a percentage of their income for monthly rent, supplemented by public and private funding.

One of the challenges faced by housing programs like the one run by Help USA is keeping tenants stabilized. Substance abuse, physical disabilities and mental health issues are common among the veterans the group works with.

To address these problems, Mr. Hameline plans to hire on-site nurses. Help USA will also provide transportation to medical appointments, host Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and provide a case management worker to help navigate interactions with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“I’ve been doing homeless services for 21 years,” Mr. Hameline said. “I imagine we will have problems every single day, and that’s what we do.”

“But we also have successes every single day,” he added.

William Daniel Hallock, a noncombat Army veteran, said, “A lot of people don’t know where to go and what to do.”

Mr. Hallock, 65, served during the Vietnam War, struggled with a heroin addiction and spent six months living out of his truck after he hit “rock bottom” while living in Virginia Beach. He has been sober since 2010 and now walks the streets and beaches near his house to talk with other veterans and help them overcome what he calls the hardest part of homelessness: finding the resources to regain stability.

“You’re like invisible, I guess, and they don’t want to ask after a while,” he said of veterans. “It just makes it easiest to sleep under the bridge. There’s not — the word isn’t out there as much as it should be.”

Help USA will rely on the work of outreach teams, established by public and private organizations, and the city’s Department of Human Services to connect with veterans who most need the help.

“We have a registry of every single veteran who we know is experiencing homelessness here in the district,” said Laura Green Zeilinger, the department’s director. She said the last time she checked, there were about 340.

The reuse of the land at Walter Reed is not determined by the Army but by an organization called the Local Redevelopment Authority — in this case an arm of the city government — that works with the community to develop a publicly approved plan.

Randall Clarke, who oversees the redevelopment authority, said strict regulations must be followed when trying to purchase a base closed by the base realignment commission. Beyond that, with Walter Reed’s historical significance, a preservation board must ensure that the buildings are properly used.

“Obviously, they have things they want to achieve and the district has their priorities, but it has been productive and constructive,” Mr. Clarke said about the closed-door negotiations with the Army.

The Army would like a quick conclusion to the negotiations as they are spending “considerable resources” for the security and maintenance of the campus, said an Army spokesman, Dave Foster.

“The U.S. Army wants the federal government and federal taxpayers to be fairly compensated for this valuable property,” Mr. Foster said.

But before any renovations can begin, the negotiations between the city and the Army must be completed and the deal approved by the City Council. The project has an especially powerful advocate in the newly elected mayor, Muriel E. Bowser.

“It’s been at the top of my list for the last eight years,” Ms. Bowser said.

Ms. Bowser, who as a member of the City Council represented the area where the old Walter Reed resides, called the redevelopment plan a “game changer.” Beyond just Help USA’s portion, the plan includes vast commercial areas, affordable housing, parks and more. It is expected to bring in about $37 million in annual tax revenue while also creating thousands of construction and permanent jobs.

“It’s iconic, it’s bucolic, it’s just about perfect,” Ms. Bowser said. “So we’re looking forward to getting started.”