The state is drawing criticism for plans to close a transitional housing program for homeless veterans at the Wisconsin Veterans Home at King, a move it says is prompted by concerns from federal regulators.
The Veteran Housing and Recovery Program at the King home in Waupaca County was established in 1994 and is one of of the oldest veteran homeless programs in the country. It is set to close on September 30 and is nearly at capacity with 25 of its 26 beds filled as of this week, according to the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs. The state said it will work to place each veteran in an alternative housing program and is committed to ensuring they are well placed, said Carla Vigue, spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs.
"This difficult decision is being made in order to best serve those in our program by finding them a more ideal location to live and receive the services they need," Vigue said. "The veterans’ needs and finding a place for them as good as or better than their current situation will be top priority during this transition."
King's homeless program is currently run out of MacArthur Hall, one of four skilled nursing facilities on the King campus. For the last year, homeless veterans have been housed alongside elderly and sick residents, after the program's initial home, Ove Hall was demolished to make room for Moses Hall, a new skilled nursing facility set to open in 2021.
The state said that change was intended to be temporary, but Dan Zimmerman, the former secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs under Gov. Scott Walker, said the state did extensive due diligence and got approval from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and state and federal Health and Human Services officials to make the move to MacArthur Hall permanent and safe.
Zimmerman gave the Cap Times a memo showing that an official at the Middleton Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Madison signed off on the approval and an email exchange showing that others in the agency also agreed to the move.
"There was never any discussion of anything ever being temporary," Zimmerman said. "We were allowed to do exactly what we have on the ground right now."
But Diane Lynch, the department's Veterans Homes Administrator, who was hired in April to manage the state's veterans homes, said that is not what she has been told by regulators at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. That agency, along with the state Department of Health Services, told her they believed moving the homeless program to MacArthur Hall was only temporary. Both agencies said that the mixing of two vulnerable populations on one floor in a licensed skilled nursing facility was problematic, according to Lynch, who has worked as a nursing home administrator in several states over the last 30 years.
USDVA instructed the department to create a barrier between the homeless program and the nursing home, but that was never constructed. The resident beds on the floor were still legally considered nursing home beds, rather than homeless program beds, Lynch said.
"I’m not here to dispute what someone else previously said, but I can tell you what I was told when I called both entities ... that it was a temporary situation and they were looking for a permanent solution," Lynch said.
When federal VA regulators inspected King last week they were particularly concerned about the homeless program on the same floor as a skilled nursing facility with both populations comingling and said they would like note it in their report, Lynch said.
"I wouldn't want anybody to misconstrue that we don't think homeless veterans are not equally as important (as nursing home residents), that is not the position we are taking," Lynch said. "I think everybody would recognize they are both vulnerable populations for their own reasons...and sometimes those things, because of their unpredictability creates a dangerous situation."
The state runs three other facilities for homeless veterans that will remain open in Green Bay, Union Grove and Chippewa Falls, where King residents will be transferred, but those programs are near capacity and each have waiting lists of up to seven people. According to the state, 23 of 30 beds are filled at Chippewa Falls, 14 of 17 beds in Green Bay and 28 of 31 beds in Union Grove.
Zimmerman said that demand shows the impact closing the program at King will have.
"It is an absolutely critical need in the state," said Zimmerman, who lives in Ripon and works for a national defense contractor. He said he has not spoken publicly about veterans issues since leaving his job in January and said his comments are not intended to disparage current Secretary Mary Kolar.
“I have to say something on behalf of the homeless guys," he said. "I would not normally step into this.”
Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps who represents the district in which King sits, said he was "disappointed" with the state's decision to close the program and said he will work with them to help veterans transition.
“Through programs like Veteran Housing and Recovery Program, the Wisconsin Veterans Home at King helped Northeast Wisconsin veterans access critically important care," he said. "We must continue to fulfill those promises, and thankfully, the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs has informed my office that the veterans impacted will be guaranteed access to housing at alternate locations."
In 2017 the state lost a $500,000 grant for the Union Grove program and a $430,000 grant for the King program. After an outcry from federal lawmakers, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reinstated the grant, which lasts through September 30, 2020. The state still has the grant and will use it to fund its three other homeless programs.