Commission approves housing for homeless vets in Augusta at old VA buildings

Commission OKs 'supportive housing'

Two 1930s-era buildings in Augusta soon will house homeless veterans under a plan that won Augusta Commission approval Tuesday.

Organizers of Freedom's Path, however, agreed not to use an entrance on Maryland Avenue, which divides the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center and the Highland Park neighborhood.

The decision, said Janice Kennedy, the medical center's community relations coordinator, was made not for veterans but "for the neighborhood."

Members of the Highland Park Neighborhood Association who asked for the concession insisted they were not opposed to the transitional housing project, just to its use of Maryland for access.

"We are not against veterans; we are not against the VA, or against the homeless vets or the people who are trying to help them," said association President Catherine Winbush.

While many walk along Maryland, it has no sidewalk, said Aurora Britton, who has lived in the area since the early 1950s.

Maryland's east shoulder is the VA fence, and Tuesday afternoon the road was busy with VA van traffic, trucks carrying supplies into the medical center and other vehicles, many driving in and out of the medical center via another gate on Maryland less than a tenth of a mile from the transitional housing site.

Unused since the Department of Veterans Affairs consolidated a nursing home and locked dormitory into its main hospital at the complex, the two buildings will be converted into 70 units of permanent and transitional "supportive housing," according to a document detailing security at the site.

Security will include gates accessible only with a key card or punch code and cameras at all entrances, the document said.

Only the presence of the fence could persuade longtime Highland Park resident Susan Chick, who recalled disabled veterans performing lewd acts just inside the fence decades ago.

"We're not dumb; we see what's being pulled over our eyes right now," said Chick's nephew Brandon Douglas, who also lives in the neighborhood.

Commissioner Bill Lockett, whose district includes Highland Park, said that he is a 20-year disabled veteran but that he disagreed with the VA's plans to use Maryland as an entrance.

"Maryland is not suited for what you wanted it to do," he said.

The only commissioner to vote against the zoning action was Jerry Brigham, who questioned the city's jurisdiction over the federal property.

While it is not designing an entrance on Maryland, ultimately Freedom's Path will use whatever entrance the VA authorizes, according to Judith Kaira of Affordable Housing Solutions, the developer of the project.

The $10 million undertaking is expected to open its first building of 20 units in about a year, Kaira said.

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