Utah agency claims VA ‘overscreens’ homeless applicants’ addiction histories, leading to vacant beds
Housing Authority of Salt Lake City says the result has been vacant beds
SALT LAKE CITY — The Housing Authority of Salt Lake City says it is seeking to change admittance regulations at the Valor House, a facility that provides apartment housing for homeless veterans, making access easier for those with a history of substance abuse problems.
The organization — which describes itself as a federally funded group designed to "provide rent subsidies and promote affordable housing for low-income persons" — says it is prepared to seek legal remedies against the Salt Lake City Veterans Affairs Health Care system in order to change such policies at Valor House.
It claims local Veterans Affairs policies discouraging the intake of residents with prior histories of substance abuse have led to high vacancy rates at Valor House, which was built in 2012 on the Salt Lake City Veterans Affairs campus and consists of 72 apartment units.
"The mix of regulatory barriers to tenancy put in place by the local VA caused this property to average over 30 percent vacancy for the past several years — a total of approximately 11,000 empty bed nights at a time when many veterans are struggling on the street or in substandard living conditions," Britnee Dabb, deputy director of the Housing Authority of Salt Lake City, said in a release Monday.
Jeremy Laird, a spokesman for the Veterans Affairs Salt Lake City Health Care System, said in a statement responding to the accusations that "VA Salt Lake City never turns away or denies services to homeless veterans."
"However, we do make certain that veterans are placed in the appropriate housing situation for their recovery needs."
Laird also said that "we are currently working very closely with the Housing Authority on a resolution while always keeping our veterans' best interest in mind."
"(Veterans Affairs) staff will continue to be actively involved with Valor House and the care provided for veterans as we work through this complex issue," he said.
On Dec. 20, the housing authority issued a document serving as both a demand letter and default notice to the Department of Veterans Affairs, saying the department has shown "failure to perform" certain "covenants and conditions" of the lease agreement on the Valor House facility, which was signed before it was completed. The letter requests "certain actions by the VA to cure such default" on the lease.
The housing authority says in its letter that the lease agreement allowed it to "finance, design, develop, construct, operate and maintain the property," and to, "in consultations with the VA, establish specific … standards to ensure eligible veterans … admission into the facility."
The housing authority says in the letter that their lease contract stipulates 75 percent of the tenants who are awarded a unit be subjected to the Veterans Affairs' definition of "'priority' veterans," and that the housing authority is permitted to fill the rest of the units "in its sole and absolute discretion."
But Veterans Affairs staff has "den(ied) eligible veterans placement in the 75 percent of units reserved" under its authority, and has not permitted housing authority staff "to make exceptions to the eligibility criteria" as had been agreed to, the letter claims.
"The VA has known since at least (August 2015) that, despite a surplus of homeless veterans in the surrounding area, there were consistent vacancies at Valor House," the letter says.
The letter suggests potential legal action if Veterans Affairs does not meet the organization's demands to institute a "good faith effort" to promote "reasonable screening of veterans" and to give the housing authority "a greater role in tenant admission decisions" — and commit in writing to do all of that by Jan. 15.
Dabb claims that at least one reason for the alleged lackluster filling of vacancies was an incentive structure for staff members that discouraged them from accepting "veteran applicants stigmatized from past drug or alcohol addiction."
Veterans Affairs staff at the facility have been rewarded with bonuses in their pay for "each veteran quickly relocated out from the property to other types of housing," according to Dabb.
She said that meant that veterans with a history of addiction to drugs or alcohol, or those with "other conditions that could make rapid placement in other housing more difficult," were generally shut out from being admitted, in favor of those more likely to reward the incentive structure.
"The VA not only overscreens and doesn't let people in, they also kind of cherry-pick clients they can move out quickly," Daniel Nackerman, executive director of the Housing Authority of Salt Lake City, told the Deseret News.
Laird flatly denied the existence of any employee bonuses for quickly moving veteran tenants out of Valor House.
"Federal employees do not receive bonuses for relocating veterans to non-supportive housing," Laird said in his statement. "Furthermore, they have never received bonuses for placement of veterans, nor is there any encouragement to relocate veterans."
Laird also said that the "VA Salt Lake City Health Care System is committed to housing homeless veterans seeking personal growth and treatment."
Dabb said in the housing authority's release that it had "gained the right" to "a more active role in the placement of homeless veterans" at Valor House, but it wasn't immediately clear whether Veterans Affairs agreed with that claim. Laird declined to comment for this story beyond the prepared statement he provided.
Nackerman said his organization is fully committed to ensuring there is no tolerance for any substance abuse ever occurring at Valor House, which is already the policy there, but believes that "people with past backgrounds of drugs and alcohol issues" should not be kept from having a chance to get off the streets.
"We've just run out of patience on having empty beds at the site," he said.
Nackerman said the changes sought by the housing authority would ensure the filling of all vacancies at the Valor House by mid-February.
Dabb said the high number of vacancies at Valor House have also "led to extreme cuts" in the Housing Authority of Salt Lake City's federal grant funding, costing the organization "almost $1 million to date."
"Until now, this loss has been covered by HASLC using funds taken from other housing programs in order to prevent the veterans who did manage to get placed at Valor House from becoming homeless again," she said.
The housing authority also in recent weeks agreed to contract with First Step House, a nonprofit that specializes in working with clients struggling with addiction, to more or less "replac(e) the VA staff and HASLC staff" working at Valor House in clinical and social work capacities, the organization said in its release.
That move specifically, Nackerman said, is something that Veterans Affairs had indicated they are "favorable" to.
But Nackerman said "there's definitely been resistance" and "dispute" from Veterans Affairs when it comes to changing the admittance policies that, according to him, have led to large vacancies. He said Sen. Orrin Hatch's office has "been involved for several months and they really turned up the heat on the VA the last month or so," and that the senator's efforts have left things "now pointed in the right direction."
Multiple attempts to reach Hatch's office for comment were not successful.