The white butterflies surrounding the painted tree represent possibility: the chance of rebirth.
They’re a metaphorical component in a plan to house homeless female veterans at the Washington Soldiers Home in Orting. They flutter inside Betsy Ross Hall, once a dormitory for nurses, now a planned haven for 11 women and a resident “house mother.”
The rooms are ready, the beds made, the gift baskets of toothbrushes and shampoo sit on the dressers. All that remains is hoped-for approval from the Pierce County Council of a $250,000 appropriation, listed in County Executive Bruce Dammeier’s supplemental budget proposal. A separate budget request would dedicate $500,000 to renovations at nearby Roosevelt Barracks and provide housing for as many as 40 homeless male veterans.
The council hasn’t made its decision yet. Members took their first look at Dammeier’s $4.7 million budget proposal on March 27, and fired off numerous questions — about money for behavioral health services elsewhere in the county, as well as the proposals aimed at homeless veterans.
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Councilwoman Pam Roach wondered about veterans with criminal records, and whether they would be allowed a place at the Soldiers Home, which caters to about 130 veterans who need nursing care.
The answer from Ray Switzer is yes — criminal background screenings are part of the process. Switzer is the manager of WestCare Foundation, the nonprofit that spearheaded the drive to renovate the Betsy Ross building. He’s also a former program manager at the state Department of Veterans Affairs.
In a recent interview, he spoke of the growing need to provide services for female veterans.
“Women are a group of folks that has risen,” he said. “There are more (women veterans) today than there were 10, 15, 20 years ago. The federal Veterans Administration hasn’t been very well-positioned to provide some of the needs that are there.”
Women are a group of folks that has risen. There are more (women veterans) today than there were 10, 15, 20 years ago. The federal Veterans Administration hasn’t been very well-positioned to provide some of the needs that are there.
Ray Switzer, manager of WestCare Foundation, the nonprofit entity that spearheaded drive to renovate Betsy Ross building
The project was born four years ago in partnership with the state, Switzer said. WestCare sought a lease of the building, with the notion of aiming it toward female veterans. The state agreed, and soon, backed by a mixture of federal and local funding, the old building underwent a slow makeover: floors, counters, cabinets and faucets, a sprinkler system, a wheelchair-friendly lift for the common room, and a new roof.
What remained was the look and feel of the place.
“We didn’t want it to be institutional,” Switzer said. “We don’t want this to look like an institution. I can take you to a lot of state buildings that have off-white paint on the wall.”
WestCare sought volunteers. Enter artist and designer Karen McClain, who has a history with the Soldiers Home, and plays music for its residents.
“We wanted it to feel like home, but also with clean, new, wonderful things that are gonna help them on their journey while they’re here,” she said.
Working with friends in the art world, McClain devised designs and features that give the two-story building an apartmentlike feel. Rather than institutional white, some walls are painted warm purple, others a peaceful blue. Each of the 11 rooms has its own unique name on the door, inspired by nurses who worked there in the previous century: the Mildred room, the Clara room.
Working with friends in the art world, McClain devised designs and features that give the two-story building an apartmentlike feel. Rather than institutional white, some walls are painted purple or blue.
The renovations found a friendly ear in Dammeier’s new administration. Don Anderson, mayor of Lakewood as well as Dammeier’s senior counsel and veterans affairs liaison, learned of the project and wanted to know more.
“We were looking for a homelessness project that we might be very quickly able to support,” said Carol Mitchell, the county’s director of justice services and special projects.
Though the county’s share of the Betsy Ross project still awaits approval, it would provide money for operating expenses and upkeep, including a case manager to serve as the eyes and ears of the facility after hours — much like a resident assistant at a college dormitory.
Switzer already has a candidate in mind for that slot, though he doesn’t name her: a female veteran with three children.
The vision for the Roosevelt Barracks renovation operates on similar lines. The building can house up to 90 veterans. But much of it is unused, with rooms that haven’t been occupied for 20 years. The hoped-for county money would renovate enough space for 40 veterans, Switzer said. The county’s commitment would make it easier to seek matching funds for additional upgrades if other private donors decide to pitch in.
The vision for the Roosevelt Barracks renovation operates on similar lines. The hoped-for county money would renovate enough space for 40 veterans, Switzer said. The county’s commitment would make it easier to seek matching funds for additional upgrades if private donors decide to pitch in.
While the Orting facility caters to veterans with medical needs, Switzer said the veteran population is changing, getting younger, and more self-sufficient.
“The group now includes people who are maybe 38 years old,” he said. “They’ve been deployed four or five times. They don’t want to play bingo. In order to serve their needs, we have to do things a little bit differently.”
McClain, the designer, feels the same way, though she views the topic from a different angle. The women who come to the Betsy Ross building will need time — to heal, to feel normal again, to live in a positive place.
That’s the basis for her belief in color on the walls.
“It changes your psychology,” she said. “Whatever caused them to be homeless, that’s pretty serious. We owe it to them as a country to support their healing and get them back on their feet.”
The same rationale inspired the white butterflies. McClain and her fellow artists left them white on purpose. Each woman who enters the facility and leaves with success will add her name under one of the butterflies, and color will be added to honor the achievement.
“It’s a symbol of transformation,” McClain said. “They spread their wings and they fly from here.”