Augusta Commission to vote on VA housing

Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff
Hope House, a nonprofit, is seeking rezoning to adapt Veterans Affairs buildings for transitional housing for homeless veterans.

The Augusta Commission is scheduled to vote today on a rezoning that would allow Augusta nonprofit Hope House to convert two 1930s-era Department of Veterans Affairs buildings into a $10 million transitional housing center for homeless veterans.

But the Freedom's Path project faces opposition from the Richmond County Neighborhood Association Alliance, which has lobbied the commission to refuse rezoning the nine-acre federal property as multifamily residential for the project unless developers scrap a plan to create an entrance on Maryland Avenue, which separates the VA property from a residential neighborhood.

"We never anticipated that the neighbors would not want veterans living beside them," Hope House Executive Director Karen Saltzman said.

Commissioner Joe Jackson said the neighborhood group's petition hadn't changed his mind.

"You're dealing with the federal government, and they want to put in a $10 (million) or $12 million investment that's putting people to work," he said. "We have homeless veterans that we need to take care of."

Sammie Sias, the head of the neighborhood alliance and a candidate for the District 4 commission seat, said neighbors in the Highland Park area preferred that the veterans use the front VA entrance on Wrightsboro Road instead of a gate on Maryland, he said.

"The street was too narrow, anybody can see that, for that kind of heavy traffic," said Sias, a 28-year Army veteran. "Everybody else uses the front."

Late Monday, he said Hope House had agreed to scrap its plan for the rear entrance, but no one from the nonprofit could be reached to confirm that.

Developer Craig Taylor of Atlanta said the original plan included a brick and wrought-iron or metal fence, about 6 feet high, around the buildings.

"We're trying to generate a sense of separation and a stepping out," he said. "So the orientation of residents was away from the (VA) residence and toward the community."

The interior gate would not prevent veterans from walking to the VA hospital for medical care, he said.

Using the Wrightsboro Road entrance, the veterans will walk by the VA boiler and chiller plant, a couple of loading docks and a maintenance shop.

"It's not a first-class entrance," Taylor said.

A builder already selected from the Augusta area will preserve the historical character of the buildings according to standards laid out by the National Park Service, Taylor said.

The buildings have been vacant since the VA incorporated its services into its new hospital at the same site, said Janice Kennedy, the community relations coordinator for the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center.

Kathleen Scott, the chief of the Norwood Center's Domiciliary Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Program, said Freedom's Path is where domiciliary residents will move when they're ready to start a job search and return to normal life.

The VA complex is "missing that vocational rehabilitation job component and having a place to stay while they save their money," Scott said.

The two buildings were designated for the federal Enhanced-Use Lease program and mandated by the VA to be used for homeless veteran services, she said.

"For some reason (neighbors) don't want us to transition into the community," she said. "We've had the domiciliary here for 10 years, and there hasn't been one complaint or concern expressed by anyone on that street."

Freedom's Path will be like the domiciliary, with around-the-clock rules for behavior and curfews.

"It's not a flophouse; it's not a shelter. It's truly a rehabilitation center to transition veterans back into the community," Scott said.

Veterans at the domiciliary learn techniques for stress management, how to cope with grief and loss, get treatment for alcohol and drug abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder and other issues associated with life after deployment, she said.

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