Last August, Karen Saltzman stood outside a vacant mental health clinic on the grounds of the Charlie Norwood VA Center in uptown Augusta and imagined a reinvented campus where homeless and disabled veterans could seek shelter and receive increased access to health care.
She said the endangered property had “great bones” and that after traces of asbestos, lead paint, mildew and rust were removed, developers hoped to transform the three-story building into a veterans housing project known as Freedom’s Path.
The development, along with two other historic properties, would open by the end of 2014 and provide a gym, computer lab and close to 100 one-bedroom apartments to equip veterans with the resources they needed to find jobs and lead productive, healthy lives.
Now, the future of Freedom’s Path is clouded by a smoldering legal battle, amid claims that the state of Georgia used unwritten rules, unnecessary delays and retaliation tactics to block project funding, threatening to keep ailing veterans from finding the resources they need to succeed.
“We will not give up on this much needed project,” said Saltzman, executive director of Hope House, an Augusta nonprofit that’s co-developing the project. “It is my hope that we can eventually move forward and help those Veterans that have served us.”
Citing arbitrary, capricious and discriminatory acts, Freedom’s Path lead developer, Affordable Housing Solutions (AHS), sued the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA) and the state Housing and Finance Authority in October for blocking federal funding for 98 veteran housing units at the VA.
No court date has been set in the case; however, in legal documents filed last week in Fulton County Superior Court, each side wrote that the prospect of a settlement was “poor” because the judgment involved government-regulated funding and that a six- to 10-day trial was expected, possibly next year.
Since 2009, AHS has sought to fund Freedom’s Path through the National Home Investment Partnership Program and federal tax credits provided in exchange for private developers limiting occupancy and rents to low-income tenants.
The project, granted a 15-month contract worth up to $5.5 million, was designed to serve veterans such as Neil Franklin Wilson, a 68-year-old, 100-percent disabled Vietnam veteran who came to Augusta a little more than a month ago from Anchor Behavioral Health Hospital in Atlanta.
Wilson, who served in the Navy from 1966 to 1972, suffered a heart attack in 2005 and has been off cocaine 20 years, but said he still struggles with alcohol. He has been prescribed 20 different medications for pain and depression. He said he hopes the Augusta VA, which has assigned him a social worker to review a 4-inch packet of mental health records he carries with him around town, can help get him into a treatment program to curb his addiction.
Wilson has been divorced 35 years. His only sister lives in Florida.
“Every now and then I get into wine and can’t just drink one bottle,” said Wilson, who’s staying at the Salvation Army Center of Hope in downtown Augusta. “I’ll finish four and it tears up my system.”
According to AHS’ lawsuit, the project’s approval hinged not on whom it served, but with whom its development team consulted and partnered to complete Freedom’s Path.
In August 2013, after more than a year of legal proceedings, the state lost a lawsuit to Beneficial Communities and was ordered to approve the developer for $950,000 in federal tax credits to construct and rehabilitate 69 low-income housing units at Golden Hills Apartments in Dahlonega, Ga., state records show.
The Dahlonega project began in 2008, according to online records.
Beneficial Communities was hired in August 2011 as the experienced development consultant for Freedom’s Path. A consultant, the Rev. Craig Taylor, a former Air Force lieutenant and affordable housing activist, had already worked with developers on both the Augusta and Dahlonega project for two years.
AHS claims the state purposely sabotaged Freedom’s Path because of the Beneficial lawsuit.
“It was kind of a double whammy,” Atlanta attorney Jason W. Graham, said of the company’s ties to the two consultants.
Graham was the lawyer for Golden Hills in its lawsuit and is representing Freedom’s Path to overturn the state’s “unlawful acts” and require it to close on the previously approved federal funding. He said he is confident community affairs wronged his clients, but that he fears the project may lose VA support and more than $400,000 in grant money from foundational partners.
“I do have concerns that we may wind up with a Pyrrhic victory...one with such a devastating cost that it is tantamount to defeat,” he said. “My clients passed exhaustion and exasperation a couple years ago. Now, they are on a rally and compelled to fight it to the end.”
That fight might include proving the legality of Freedom’s Path. The state contested in legal documents filed last week that the project is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act because it isolates individuals with developmental disabilities and mental illness from the community at large.
“A state is required to house such individuals in the most integrated setting appropriate to those individuals’ needs,” its preliminary status reports reads.
Proponents of Freedom’s Path in Augusta disagree.
Jim Lorraine, president and CEO of the Augusta Warrior Project, would not comment on the lawsuit since his organization has a relationship with each party involved, but said a project such as Freedom’s Path satisfies a critical need and that his nonprofit hopes that the development can be completed. The VA declined comment.
“Any initiative that supports veterans who are chronically homeless and in need of increased access to health care is important and a program the community needs, regardless of who does it or what happens,” he said. “If we can help just one veteran, then in my opinion that’s enough of a need.”
That one veteran could be Dexter McCain, a 55-year-old Army veteran who served in the military from 1978 to 1986.
McCain has been homeless off and on since 2000 when he moved to the area from North Carolina. He has three grown sons and 12 grandchildren.
“I don’t want to burden them with my problems,” he said.
McCain spent three months at the VA last summer to overcome a cocaine addiction and was clean for four months after his release in September, but since has struggled to stay sober. He sleeps under the John C. Calhoun Expressway.
“It’s rough out here,” he said. “There are a lot of homeless veterans that are not getting the help they need.”
Graham does not know if renovating historic facilities to house homeless veterans will positively influence his client’s case, but he said he would like to think it would put them on the “high road.”
“In a project that would serve disabled homeless veterans, how much more fairness could you possibly want in the interest of justice?” he asked. “I hope it will make a difference.”