TARGET 2 INVESTIGATES: VA ends program for homeless vets at King

KING, Wis. (WBAY) - A Marine veteran who says a Wisconsin-run program for homeless vets saved his life wants to know why the program is now shutting down.

(WBAY photo)

That veteran and other families turned to Target 2 Investigates, asking why the Veterans Housing and Recovery Program (VHRP) at King in Waupaca County is closing at the end of September. They say it came as a shock and left them scrambling to find somewhere new to live.

The program provides temporary housing, services and job help to some of the most vulnerable veterans -- those without a home or at risk of losing theirs, many times because of addiction issues.

More than two dozen veterans started the summer in the program at King.

One of them, Marine veteran Phil Calkins, tells us it saved his life, and he doesn't understand why it's closing so suddenly.

"When my mother passed away, I did not handle it well and I kind of went off the deep end. I was drinking every day, and I just came to the realization that I needed to do something different," says Calkins.

That's when a friend told him about VHRP at King.

The two-year program to help him beat addiction and get back on his feet sounded like the solution his sisters hoped to find.

"That is the only thing is that he's safe. He's safe, not laying in a snowbank somewhere or in the ditch somewhere or who knows where," explains Phil's sister, Leslie Calkins.

Phil moved to King in January and says he felt instantly at home, supported and safe and away from temptations of addiction.

"I'm happy with the program here. I mean, it helped me out. Like I said, I've been clean and sober since I've been here," he says.

The brother and sister believe this program changed his life.

"It's huge. It was huge, going from no place to live to having a place to live, where people knew what he was going through and dealing with that situation," says Leslie.

Then came the unexpected announcement from the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs in late June the program was shuttering at King, telling all the veterans they would need to move by the end of September.

"It was just like, what? You don't really know how to react," says Leslie.

The VA told them it would help relocate veterans to one of the three other VHRPs in the state. The closest is in Green Bay, about 75 miles away.

The Calkins worried other two programs, in Union Grove and Chippewa Falls, are much farther away from family.

"To just up and move you without your support group seems really dangerous to me," says Leslie.

So why close a successful program, with a wait list, that federal lawmakers fought to keep at King just two years ago?

"They're veterans. They served, and they're vulnerable veterans, so someone has to speak on their behalf. And I know the rules. I know the law. I know what was done, and I'm going to speak on their behalf," says Dan Zimmerman.

He is the former Wisconsin Veterans Affairs Secretary.

Last fall, under Zimmerman's direction, when the building that used to house the once-homeless veterans was torn down, he moved the VHRP members into part of MacArthur Hall, which also housed veterans in skilled nursing care in the other part of that building.

Federal and state regulations say those populations of veterans cannot mix.

But Zimmerman is adamant he met those regulations and received approval, keeping the veterans separate but all housed in that same building.

"We went through the detail that we needed to go through. We got the approvals that we needed. We would have never moved anybody, period," says Zimmerman.

But current state officials tell Target 2 the program is closing because those veterans cannot live in the same building.

Target 2 filed an open records request July 10 asking for emails and documents about the program and its closure. The Department of Veterans Affairs says it's still working on our request but did give us more than 600 pages of documents its legal counsel compiled in deciding whether to close this program.

In those records, memos and emails dated September and October 2018, from Zimmerman and the then-head of the King Veterans Home, told the USDVA they intended to move the homeless veterans into that new building.

But current WDVA officials tell us they can't find documentation or emails granting permission or denial to house them all together.

"When I walked out the door on January 7th, we had every approval that we needed in order to maintain the program at King," says Zimmerman.

"People before me have made suggestions that these things were supposed to have happened, but there's no evidence of that. We're righting something that probably shouldn't have happened to begin with," says Diane Lynch, Division of Wisconsin Veterans Homes administrator.

In April, the state hired Lynch to fill a position that had been vacant for months. She says she immediately began looking at this homeless program and exchanged emails with federal officials, concerned about housing veterans together. Those emails show federal USDVA officials then said they thought the program was temporary and raised concerns of safety and the potential other veterans could be harmed by at-risk VHRP members.

Target 2 found no documented incidents or complaints in the documents provided to us.

"We started looking at that process to say we need to remedy this. It was not intended to be this way, and the rules forbid it," says Lynch, who talked to us by phone Wednesday.

Records show DVA leadership decided June 13 to close the homeless veterans program at King.

Over the next few weeks, WDVA officials met with others involved, including the with Veterans Assistance Foundation who is contracted to oversee VHRP, discussing a plan of action.

On June 25, veterans in the program were notified.

Also on June 25, more federal inspectors arrived at King in a surprise visit, and three days later issued a citation for intermingling -- the mixing of the two populations -- and ordered the problem corrected. The WDVA was not issued a fine.

"We care about veterans. We are not just putting people out. We're trying to find an equal to or better place than where they have been located," says Lynch. "The Veterans Administration wants to make sure that we're doing the right thing, to be in compliance with the requirements set aside for us by the state and federal government, but also that we're taking care of veterans. The way I see it is we're taking care of them, it's just in a different location, and in hindsight this shouldn't have happened to begin with."

Despite that, Phil Calkins and his sister say they feel like veterans are getting lost in the middle of government red tape.

He moved to Madison Wednesday, nervous to try a new program in a new city but trying to stay positive.

"I'm moving on. Like I said, not the first time somebody threw a curveball at me. Won't be the last," says Calkins.

Despite an original September 30 deadline for relocating all the veterans, the Department of Veterans Affairs tells us the final three veterans transferred out of King Wednesday, the day this report aired.

In all, the department tells us six veterans transferred to other VHRP programs, eight transferred to other VA programs, one transferred to the COTs Program in Appleton, one is in long-term care in a hospital, six moved into their own apartments and three moved in with family. The VA says one required other care.

In a statement to Target 2, WDVA spokeswoman Carla Vigue wrote, "This difficult decision was made in order to best serve those in our program by finding them a more ideal location to live and receive the services they need. In June, Secretary Kolar met with the veterans in the program and assured them that we would work with each one of them individually to find them place that was as good or better than King. The Department has lived up to her assurances."

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