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About 10 years ago, life took a troubling turn for Jim Wyatt. He started drinking as his marriage fell apart. A former electrical technician with the Navy, he lost his job at the engineering firm BAE Systems and then tried working construction for a while before losing that job, as well. Along the way, as a diabetic, he lost all his teeth, too.
At the end of the line, Wyatt ended up in a homeless shelter in Montgomery County. Late last year, when he got referred to the Southeast Veterans Service Center, a three-story transitional housing facility on Chesapeake Street SE near Southern Avenue in Ward 8, he thought things were looking up.
“When I first got here, I was gung ho,” he says, chain-smoking cigarettes in the parking lot on a Sunday morning, nursing a cherry Coke. “Every day, I was doing one or two things.” Like getting an email account, which he’d never had before. Not to mention staying sober—it’ll be two years on Friday.
Wyatt quickly learned, though, that conditions at the center leave much to be desired. His air conditioner didn’t work for weeks during the hottest part of the summer. Bathroom facilities are filthy, the floors stained from toilet flooding and the shower curtains black with mold, and there’s usually no soap or toilet paper. The center is supposed to serve two meals a day, but the continental breakfast started only recently, dinner is offered at irregular times, and sometimes supplies run out before all of the 98 residents who want food have eaten.
For anything that goes wrong, there’s no recourse except to complain to staff, who may or may not get around to fixing the issue. “Any time you had a problem in other places, they would have a form to fill out, or some kind of procedure,” Wyatt says. “Here, they don’t. So if you want to get something done, you can’t.”
Wyatt is hardly alone in his annoyance. While they expressed gratitude for having a roof above their heads, the dozen or so veterans I talked to also described shoddy living conditions. Besides cleanliness, they worry about security: In an area where gunshots are often heard outside at night, the gate is broken and doors are open, and there’s no guard on duty. Although a staff member helps residents find jobs and housing, many didn’t know he’s there.
“We’re not looking for luxury. We’re just looking for basics,” says Harold Holden, who’s been there since June of last year. “Basically, all the things they say they’re doing, they’re not doing. All it is is a facility they can collect money from.”
The Veterans Administration Medical Center, which gives the nonprofit Access Housing Inc. $33 per person per day to run the place, says the Southeast Veterans Center passed inspections in February and April. But those visits come with forewarning, allowing staff to fix things up ahead of time. And the VA’s checklist basically ensures that the facility could provide adequate care—not that it actually does consistently.
Access Housing was founded by former Ward 7 Councilmember H.R. Crawford, and is headquartered in the same office as his management company, Crawford Edgewood Management. In 2008, The Washington Post published a massive report alleging he got millions of dollars from the District and the federal government to develop affordable housing, only to deliver late or not at all while doling out contracts to his friends.
Andy Silver, an attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless who’s visited the facility and is working to get the veterans legal representation, sees the Southeast Veterans Service Center as part of a troubling pattern.
“It’s OK by the VA to have the programs do really low-quality work and not have better quality conditions,” Silver says. “Everyone operates that way, and then it’s hard to single one place out and say, ‘You’re an outlier.’”
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Over the past few years, Crawford has gradually gotten out of the property-management business. His portfolio, once thousands of units strong, has dwindled to almost nothing. Meanwhile, he’s more than doubled the population of the veterans center, which brings in a tidy income: Access Housing, run by Crawford’s son Gregory Crawford, paid Crawford Edgewood Management $96,000 in 2007 and $135,000 in 2008, the most recent years for which the nonprofit’s Internal Revenue Service filings are available, just for keeping the books.
H.R. Crawford is supposed to have a personal investment in the veterans-services business: He’s a former Air Force man himself. The resident rule book at the center includes an introductory letter with a touching scene in which Crawford, as chair of the D.C. Council committee that oversees veterans affairs, met a group of homeless vets underneath a bridge in Georgetown. “Sadly, I had to ask them to leave, but that unsettling task served as the catalyst that gave birth to Access Housing, Inc.,” the letter reads. Eleven months before its series on his rotten real-estate deals, the Post ran a glowing article on the opening of a sister facility right next to the Southeast Veterans Center, simply quoting Crawford’s assertion that the neighborhood had improved as a result.
Residents acknowledge that it’s a good concept—but they say somewhere along the way, management dropped off a cliff. Sometimes utilities like Internet and phones have been cut off for nonpayment; the center’s website is nonfunctional. Some problems aren’t new, either: Holden, who’s taken on the role of organizing veterans to get legal representation, showed me a letter from a resident complaining about the same conditions in 2009.
In large part, veteran frustration comes from portions of the program that are fully sanctioned by the VA. Residents are required to pay 30 percent of their income, up to $200 per month, as a “maintenance fee.” When you also need to get back and forth to appointments, pay for any foods the center doesn’t provide, and buy soap that doesn’t show up in the bathrooms, losing a few hundred dollars can be a hit to your quality of life—especially if you weren’t told about it ahead of time, as some residents claim.
Then there’s the work program, which pays residents far below minimum wage for sitting at the front desk as “security” or doing other odd jobs around the building. The federal Department of Labor does have a special dispensation for paying disabled people stipends as they return to the workforce, but Access Housing doesn’t have the certificate required to do so. Instead, the program looks like a way to avoid paying real employees a fair wage; there’s usually no staff member on-site between the hours of 4:30 p.m. and 8:00 a.m. One veteran, a slight man who carries a cane and who asked not to be named, says he acts as a “resident assistant,” coordinating shifts at the front desk and handing out cleaning supplies when people need them, for no extra pay.
“At the end of the day, you’re asking disabled veterans to provide security for disabled veterans. That don’t make any kind of sense,” says the resident assistant, recalling an incident the previous day when a former resident had tried to force his way inside. “You have guys on security who are highly doped up on all kinds of narcotics….If someone says, ‘Let the allies in!’ you open the door and let the allies in, and it ends up being the enemy.”
These days, H.R. Crawford doesn’t venture out to the facility very often from his Capitol Hill office, or seem to understand much about what goes on there day to day. (He told me residents are supposed to be fed only one meal a day, for example, when the VA says that they’re fed two meals a day.) Any complaints, Crawford figures, come from malcontents with mental problems.
“We’re dealing with people who have very serious issues, and many of them perhaps need attention,” Crawford says. “Even those people who are unhappy, there might be underlying reasons for that. Many of our vets suffer from post-traumatic stress and have lived the life of a veteran. Of course they vent, and that’s all right. That’s why we’re there.”
Gregory Crawford says it’s difficult when veterans themselves break equipment, and that he sometimes just doesn’t have the funds to make repairs.
“The HVAC units have been put on 50, which makes them freeze, and they run over…We’ve had people break the toilets on purpose,” he says. “It’s not that we do not want the best. If it could be the Taj Mahal, I would make it the Taj Mahal. In these hard economic times, we don’t have the funds.” (Access Housing’s 2008 IRS filing shows that the organization brought in $3.1 million and spent only $1.03 million on program expenses; Gregory Crawford says the rest was used for expansion and renovations, but it’s not itemized on the filing.)
That attitude, of course, doesn’t come off well to veterans trying their hardest to get a job. “It’s almost like, ‘We’re doing what we said we’re going to do, as long as we get paid.’ We aren’t on the streets, so we’re supposed to be content,” says a software engineer, who also declined to give his name because he’s worried about his prospects for future employment. “He thinks that everyone’s stupid here. He’s slicker than a can of oil. That’s a brother fucking brothers.”
Some veterans are at the point where going backwards might be preferable to continuing on at the center. One women had made her way to Access Housing from Calvary Women’s Shelter in Chinatown, where she at least could get three square meals a day, for free. At the center, she says, she has her own room—but she says cleaning staff stole money from her piggy bank, her air conditioning was broken for months, and she gets no real assistance on finding a job.
“Little did I know that six months later, I would be going through what I’m going through now. I should have stayed at the shelter,” says the woman, who also requested anonymity. “I wasn’t treated as bad at the shelter than I am here.”
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