Friday, March 7, 2014
AUGUSTA — A previously rejected bill that sought to allow former group homes on state property to be turned into housing for homeless veterans could gain new life.
Potential solution: This photo taken on Tuesday on Arsenal Heights in Augusta shows two of the four former group homes that Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, has proposed to turn into homeless shelters for veterans. The four houses on the former Augusta Mental Health Institute campus are near the Kennebec Arsenal on the east side of Augusta.
Staff photo by Joe Phelan
Housing proposal: Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, talks on Tuesday on Arsenal Heights in Augusta about plans to turn four former group homes into shelters for homeless veterans. The four houses on the former Augusta Mental Health Institute campus are near the Kennebec Arsenal on the east side of Augusta.
Staff photo by Joe Phelan
Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, proposed a bill for the upcoming session of the state Legislature that would direct the state Bureau of General Services to sell four former group homes on the old Augusta Mental Health Institute campus to a nonprofit organization for use as housing for homeless veterans. The buildings are currently slated for demolition.
The bill was rejected in October by the Legislative Council as it weeded through some 400 bills submitted for consideration in next year’s legislative session. The council, which is made up of Democratic and Republican legislative leaders, spiked about 300 bills because legislators won’t have time to deal so many in the shorter session that’s generally reserved for “emergency” bills.
However, Wilson has appealed the council’s decision, and the council is scheduled to meet Thursday to consider it and other appeals.
Wilson expressed disappointment the bill was initially rejected and that other bills — including one about wine tasting events — were accepted. He feels politics played a major role in it being rejected by the Democrat-controlled Legislative Council.
“I think we should be looking at the merits of the bill, not the sponsoring individual’s political affiliation,” said Wilson, who is serving his first term in the state Legislature. “I’m a Republican. I think that had an affect on the Legislative Council’s decision. I believe we should be putting party politics aside to get this bill passed.”
That may yet happen.
House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, chairman of the Legislative Council, said he’s met with Wilson to discuss the bill and he plans to likely support Wilson’s appeal and its inclusion in the coming legislative session.
“We sat down and I learned more about his bill and what it will actually do,” Eves said Wednesday of Wilson and his proposed bill, L.R. 2377. “I will likely be supporting that tomorrow.”
Eves said members of the Legislative Council agreed their initial round of review of the 400 proposed bills would just be up or down votes, with little debate, to narrow the bills to a more workable number.
He said the appeals session Thursday will give lawmakers an opportunity to make their pitch for why their bills should be considered. Eves said among the 300 rejected bills, some 180 of them were sponsored by Democrats. He said Wilson’s bill was not rejected because he is a Republican.
“That’s just flat out false,” Eves said.
Wilson said the buildings are currently slated for demolition because they aren’t being used. The potential for them to be demolished, while there are homeless veterans in Maine, constitutes an emergency which should make the bill worthy of consideration in the upcoming session, he said.
The bill would direct the state to sell the buildings to a nonprofit veterans housing organization. A likely such entity, Wilson said, is Bread of Life Ministries, which already runs a usually full 12-bed homeless veterans shelter in Augusta. It is the only homeless shelter in the state dedicated to veterans.
Wilson, a Marine Corps veteran of the second Iraq War, said one of the buildings is in such good condition it could be converted into housing for veterans almost immediately, a second requires only minor work, and the other two would require more extensive renovations.
Dean LaChance, executive director of Bread of Life, confirmed the organization is interested in the proposal.
He said the former group homes could be used by veterans leaving the homeless shelter, providing them affordable housing in a community setting, with other veterans.
“We think they’d be even more successful in their reintegration into the community by having a permanent housing facility where they could live that’d be affordable, in a semi-private setting, among other veterans,” LaChance said. “This is a nonpartisan thing that would save taxpayers money and help vets out of homelessness. I can’t think of a more reasonable bill.”
Wilson and LaChance said demolishing the buildings is expected to cost $100,000, a cost that would be avoided by the state if it sold them, instead.
LaChance said the buildings would not be a homeless shelter, they would be permanent housing for veterans.
He said the facility would likely be “dry,” meaning residents could not drink alcohol there.
Wilson said two of the buildings already have conference rooms, private bedrooms, central kitchens, and strong foundations, making them relatively easily conversions for housing. He said the conference rooms could be used, for example, for post-traumatic stress disorder workshops and other events meant to help veterans.
“Whether we run it or someone else runs it, we know there is a need,” he said. “We’re in our third year of running our (veterans homeless) shelter now, and we’ve processed close to 150 veterans that have gone on, throughout the state, to live in apartments and elsewhere. To be able to offer them a lodging facility with other vets, at an affordable price, would make it even more successful.”
Keith Edwards — email@example.com
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Empty: This photo taken on Tuesday on Arsenal Heights in Augusta shows one of the four former group homes that Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, has proposed to turn into homeless shelters for veterans. The four houses on the former Augusta Mental Health Institute campus are near the Kennebec Arsenal on the east side of Augusta.
Staff photo by Joe Phelan