Veterans advocates and several state lawmakers are floating a plan to build an emergency shelter for homeless veterans at Western State Hospital. But Lakewood officials are asking them to keep looking for a different site.
Supporters of the proposal are eyeing an empty building on the campus of the state psychiatric hospital, which they say would give homeless veterans fairly easy access to services at the American Lake Veterans Affairs hospital in Lakewood.
That would be an improvement over options in Tacoma that require long bus rides to reach VA services. Backers of the plan have been working to create a program that could house a few dozen veterans at a time.
“It’s right there. Within a month we could have 30 people living there,” said Denny Sapp of Gig Harbor, a retired Navy captain who volunteers at the Tacoma Rescue Mission.
Their pitch got them a meeting Wednesday with several state lawmakers, staff from the South Sound’s congressional delegations, the director of the state’s Department of Veterans Affairs, representatives from the state Department of Social and Health Services, and Lakewood city officials.
The agencies and the lawmakers want to create more emergency shelter options that veterans could use while enrolled in long-term VA programs.
“There is great need for veterans and veterans’ families to get this immediate help,” said Washington Department of Veterans Affairs Director Lourdes Alvarado-Ramos.
Lakewood, however, wants Sapp and his partners to slow down. The city’s leaders are worried about an unclear business plan.
Sapp and partner Larry Geringer of Gig Harbor have not finished certifying their group as a nonprofit that could raise money to operate programs in a state-owned building. That’s a key requirement before the state could consider offering a space at Western State, said Sen. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma.
“I like their idea. We just need to find a way to implement it,” said Conway, who attended the meeting in Olympia.
Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson noted that Western State’s long-term plans call for the vacant building to be demolished.
He also said he would prefer that veterans advocates find a site farther from residential neighborhoods, schools and parks.
“We’re the most veteran-centric city around here, and that includes a great empathy for homeless veterans,” Anderson said. “We’re interested in finding a solution, but don’t believe it’s (this building).”
Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, hosted the meeting and asked the veterans advocates to meet with Lakewood officials again to try to reach an agreement.
Klippert was ready to submit bills this year that would have opened funding to rehabilitate the vacant building and to provide operating money for the facility.
At the time, he did not know of Lakewood’s concerns. Now, he’s holding off on the funding requests.
“I still would love to make it happen,” said Klippert, who is a lieutenant colonel in the National Guard. “I just don’t want to tie up state staff” on a project that isn’t ready.
DSHS is willing to lease space for a homeless veterans program at Western State to a nonprofit, but the agency does not have funds to provide extra services or to repair the building, DSHS spokeswoman Kathy Spears said.
Volunteers “will have to rely on community support to make it operational,” she said.
The Washington Department of Veterans Affairs operates a homeless veterans program in Port Orchard funded through the federal VA. It favors building a shelter in Pierce County, but it doesn’t have the resources to run one, Alvarado-Ramos said.
Alvarado-Ramos left the meeting in Klippert’s office with a sense that the project could come together, but not necessarily at Western State.
“It’s not a total bust,” she said.
Geringer and Sapp lead a veterans program at the Tacoma Rescue Mission, which was featured in The News Tribune last month. They’ve been meeting with small groups of lawmakers for more than two years to gain momentum for a veterans-only emergency shelter in Pierce County.
Their patience is starting to wane.
“I’m so tired of going to a meeting to go to a meeting to go to a meeting when all these homeless veterans are asking me ‘when are we going to build this building?’ ” said Geringer, a retired Air Force major and Vietnam veteran.