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Story Last modified at 10:00 a.m. on Thursday, March 17, 2011

Eklutna vet housing seeks state money
'Vet City' gaining ground: making payments on land

Alaska Star


C.K. McKellar, founder of VetCity Inc.

Backers of an Eklutna housing complex for homeless veterans are seeking $300,000 from the state to get their now two-part project rolling.

The concept originally announced last year was Vet City, a work farm where homeless veterans would be housed at the old Eklutna Lodge property. Now it includes two phases.

There's a 25-bed short-term facility strictly for chronic homeless veterans where alcohol would be allowed. There is also Vet City, an up to 70-bed facility on five acres with no alcohol where residents work or train for work in return for longer-term housing.

The smaller facility may also be located at Eklutna if efforts succeed to secure a five-acre parcel at the old lodge property next to Vet City, according to Ric Davidge, chairman of Alaska Veterans Foundation Inc. and president of the board of directors of VetCity Inc., the nonprofits working on the housing proposal.

Things are moving forward: groups are making $1,700 monthly payments on the land and have a lease agreement in place with the owner, Davidge said.

The foundation is seeking $300,000 to cover pre-development costs such as site planning, architectural and engineering, legal, environmental assessment and project management.

The smaller facility would be operated on the Housing First model. A task force commissioned by Mayor Dan Sullivan found that model – already being used in the Lower 48 – could provide the best way to get chronic homeless off the streets, Davidge said.

Putting both facilities at Eklutna would eliminate the kinds of criticism that arises when shelters are proposed for city neighborhoods, he said.

"We can effectively get homeless veterans off the street into a warm, safe environment and help them make the kinds of decisions they really have to make in order to get reintegrated into the community," Davidge said.

The project got statewide attention last week during a hearing of the Senate State Affairs Committee.

Davidge, along with two representatives of Anchorage homeless advocacy nonprofits, testified before the committee via a videoconference from Anchorage, a first for the Legislature, at least as far as committee chair Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, could tell.

C.K. McKellar, founder of the Vet City concept – most shoppers at the Eagle River Fred Meyer know him on sight – could not attend the hearing because of health issues.

Wielechowski, who also chairs the state senate's joint armed services committee, called for the hearing to get a sense of how the state can help homeless vets.

"Veterans have a disproportionately high rate of homelessness and many face additional challenges related to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)," Wielechowski said. "They need a safe environment that's drug- and alcohol-free."

Several members of the senate committee asked for statistics on homeless veteran numbers.

Advocates say it's been difficult to pin down statistics on the number of homeless vets in Anchorage and in Alaska but they know Anchorage has more than half – and that veterans do, indeed, make up a disproportionate percentage.

Of the 20 homeless who died in Anchorage in the last 18 months, five were veterans, according to the veterans foundation.

Twice yearly Anchorage Homeless Connect and Stand Down events put the number of unsheltered homeless veterans at 80 to 100 at any time. Of that number, fewer than 50 are chronic homeless veterans in serious need of long-term supportive housing, according to the foundation.

Homeless veterans bring unique problems to the streets, advocates say. Some struggle with mental disorders which may be linked to brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder; some self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. A growing number of female veterans with children are among the homeless.

But they also have access to federal services and benefits that non-veterans don't, particularly those provided by the Veterans Administration. Nonprofits that rely on grant money for housing projects can qualify for federal funding if at least 75 percent of the residents are veterans.

Still, federal programs can't do it all, the three advocates testified last week.

The VA runs a 50-bed domiciliary on Benson and C Street in Anchorage for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts that has a good success rate, but barriers to entry, waiting list and recidivism rate indicate the need for more beds and a different approach for some vets, Davidge said.

The state can help by helping with housing linked to support services, said Susan Bomalaski, executive director of Catholic Social Services. Bomalaski said that group has also applied for a VA grant that helps serve veterans with children.

The state could also help homeless veterans, and the homeless in general, by encouraging the development of affordable family housing through the Alaska Housing Finance Corp., said Trevor Storrs, with the Anchorage Coalition on Homelessness.

Committee member Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Eagle River asked the group if there were any cost figures for homeless veterans in Anchorage.

"They're probably accessing services, it's costing the city of Anchorage something," Giessel said. What would the cost savings amount to, she continued, if the project went ahead?

While there's been no formal study in Alaska, homeless in Seattle or Philadelphia cost the system $100,000 to $150,000 per person per year in services such as emergency-room medical care, jail and police time or shelter stays, Storrs said. If placed in a Housing First facility, those same people cost the system $25,000 or $30,000, he said.

Storrs cautioned the committee that the savings don't represent hard cash but instead come in the form of less spending to expand, say, hospital or emergency responder staff.

Davidge said later that his foundation last year did apply for VA grant money to fund the project as a pilot in Alaska but current budget cuts have eroded the odds that money will come.

That's one of the reasons he decided to approach state lawmakers.

"Veterans who have a service-connected disability will always remain the responsibility of the federal government but others are in some part our responsibility in Anchorage and Alaska," Davidge wrote in an e-mail. "As the Mayor said, these folks are not only citizens, they are veterans and we need to step up for them, because they did it for us."

This article published in The Alaska Star on Thursday, March 17, 2011.