AUGUSTA, Maine – A Lewiston lawmaker is leading the charge to bring as many as 21 cabins for homeless veterans to the grounds of the Veterans Affairs Administration’s medical campus at Togus.
Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, is asking the Legislature to approve a $1 million appropriation to kick-start a Volunteers of America Cabin in the Woods project to build homes on federal land at Togus, for which the nonprofit organization has secured a long-term lease.
“Our state standard should be that one homeless veteran in Maine is one too many,” said Golden, a Marine Corps veteran. “To some people, this may seem like setting the bar too high, but nationally, the president and the VA have set a goal to end homelessness among veterans by Jan. 1, 2016.”
Golden has multiple ideas on how to fund the project. He proposed the state use surplus revenue in its real estate transfer tax account. The funding would flow to the Maine State Housing Authority, which would work with Volunteers of America and the federal government to secure matching donations at a 3-1 ratio.
Golden has suggested that an alternative way to fund the project would be for the state to borrow up to $4 million in general obligation bonds that would have to be authorized by Maine voters at the ballot box in November.
Placing the cabins next to the VA’s facilities at Togus would create a synergy of services that would give homeless veterans the best chance of success in aligning their treatment, training and rehabilitation with stable housing, Golden said.
“The state would be hard-pressed to find a better location to match chronically homeless veterans with the services in our state,” Golden said.
The idea behind the cabins, others testifying on the bill said, was that many veterans are homeless because the conditions with which they are frequently dealing makes it difficult for them to live in group homes or even apartment complexes.
Golden said Maine’s known homeless veteran population hovered between 125 and 150 each year based on an annual “point in time” survey conducted by volunteers and the federal Housing and Urban Development agency.
But William “Chick” Ciciotte, chairman of the American Legion’s legislative committee in Maine, said many homeless veterans in Maine are not being counted. Ciciotte said he has reason to believe the number of homeless veterans in Maine may be as high as 1,000.
Ciciotte said veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who are dealing with issues from their service are often unfairly maligned by the public.
“Many of them are suffering from [post-traumatic stress disorder] and you will hear the public say, ‘They are a bunch of drunks and they are a bunch of druggies.’ Not so!” Ciciotte said, banging his fist on the podium. “They fought in a different kind of war than we other veterans did.”
Others testified that many veterans are reluctant to seek help and many head to rural parts of Maine to get away from people as they try to pull their civilian lives back together.
Lawmakers on the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee were largely positive toward the proposal during a public hearing on Golden’s bill, LD 1062.
“You ought to be proud of yourself, standing up for our veterans,” Rep. James Campbell, an independent from Newfield, said. “We’ve got to look out for our veterans. They are willing to fight for us, defend us and lay down their lives for us.”
Maine Bureau of Veterans Services Director Adria Horn offered tentative support for the bill with the caveat that it hinges on the VA signing a long-term service agreement with the Volunteers of America.
“The Cabin in the Woods project is an innovative program that provides a significant gap in coverage for our homeless veterans and the population that could remain homeless indefinitely without this level of intervention,” Horn said.
She urged the committee to perform “due diligence in the planning” of the project, “to ensure that a program of this magnitude does not even have a chance to fail in its implementation.”
Julia Wilcock, vice president of business development for Volunteers of America, confirmed the project was intended to address the needs of veterans.
She said The Home Depot was a partner and had offered to help fund the construction of a community center for the project, but it wanted assurances that the project would be completed.
“Because we were not able to get enough private donations to start breaking ground, The Home Depot took their money back and told us when we got the majority of the money, they would be very willing to be a partner in this project,” Wilcock said.
She said with the state’s seed money, the project would have a good chance of moving forward.
Golden said after the hearing that even if the project started with a portion of the cabins in the proposal, those units would serve as a demonstration.
George O’Keefe Jr., post service officer for the American Legion in Winthrop and a Maine National Guard veteran, also offered support for the project.
A work session will be held on Golden’s bill before it goes to the full Legislature for consideration.