February 19

Augusta veterans housing proposal moves forward

Legislative panel gives unanimous approval to Rep. Corey Wilson’s bill that would convert vacant buildings on former AMHI campus; consideration by the full House and Senate comes next.

By Keith Edwards kedwards@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — A proposal to help turn now vacant former group homes on the campus of the state’s former mental hospital into housing for veterans won unanimous approval from a state legislative committee Wednesday.

click image to enlarge

Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta

Staff file photo by Joe Phelan

Daniel Wathen

File photo

The proposal also had the indirect effect of prompting a solution to the lack of group home spots for Riverview Psychiatric Center patients who are ready to move out of the hospital.

Court Master Daniel Wathen, who oversees a consent decree that settled a 1989 lawsuit filed by patients against the former Augusta Mental Health Institute, recently recommended the state reopen two of the four former group homes on the old AMHI campus. The grounds are adjacent to Riverview on Hospital Road on the city’s east side. The consent decree holds the state to agreed-upon standards of care.

Wathen’s proposal would have made the group homes unavailable for use as veterans housing, and could have scuttled a bill sponsored by Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, that authorizes the state to sell the buildings to an organization that could turn the group homes into veterans’ housing.

However, Wathen on Wednesday unveiled the gist of a new plan he discussed last week with Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew and state Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health officials that he said could alleviate the lack of group home spots for patients ready to leave Riverview. He told legislators on the State and Local Government Committee at a work session that Riverview should no longer need the group homes, freeing them up for potential development into veterans housing.

“I’m pleased we won’t be standing in the way of Rep. Wilson and the folks interested in veterans’ housing, because that is a great need, as well,” said Wathen, of Augusta, former chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. “Yes, I believe we remedied (the lack of group home placements for Riverview patients). It’s not perfect, but it’s probably as good as we’ll ever come to. The process of shedding a little light on it is what often solves these problems.”

Wilson’s proposed L.D. 1606, which would direct the state Bureau of General Services to sell four former group homes to a nonprofit organization for use as housing for veterans, will now move forward. It won a unanimous ought to pass vote from the State and Local Government Committee, though it still must be approved by the full Legislature and be signed by Gov. Paul LePage.

“This is one of the best bills,” said committee member Rep. Jethro Pease, R-Morrill. “In the last couple of years, we’ve moved forward.

“I don’t know if we helped nudge DHHS a bit, or not, but I think we moved this to a point we can all walk out of here tonight feeling like we did a good thing for a lot of constituencies.”

The buildings were previously slated for demolition because they weren’t being used.

Augusta-based nonprofit organization Bread of Life Ministries, which runs a 12-bed homeless veterans shelter in Augusta, has expressed interest in the former group homes for veterans leaving the homeless shelter. Bread of Life Executive Director Dean LaChance said the shelter is full every night, and the group homes would provide affordable housing in a community setting with fellow veterans.

LaChance said Wednesday he’ll be happy to see the group homes converted to veterans’ housing, whether it’s Bread of Life or some other nonprofit group that does it.

“To see the needs of Riverview Psychiatric Center patients be met, and see an opportunity to help veterans in need, is hopeful,” LaChance said. “And the unanimous vote today speaks volumes for legislators’ support of veterans.”

The bill authorizes, but does not require, the state Bureau of General Services to sell the group homes at 6 and 10 Arsenal Heights Drive and 7 and 11 Independence Drive, but restricts the sale to nonprofit groups for use as transitional housing for veterans. That restriction is expected to result in a lower market price for the property than would result were it sold with no restrictions.

Wilson, himself a veteran, wasted no time trying to negotiate a price. After the vote, he approached Jennifer Smith, spokeswoman for the Department of Administrative and Financial Services, to ask if the department would consider selling the homes for $10,000. She said she could not commit to a price on the spot, and would review state policies for the sale.

Smith told the committee, however, if the bill is approved by the Legislature and signed by LePage, she would expect the transaction to be complete by fall.

Wilson said private fundraising will have to take place to both buy the property and renovate the buildings — two of which are in better condition than the other, larger two.

“It’s so exciting to have an opportunity here to help vets, and I hope we set a precedent, that this is just the beginning,” Wilson said. “Now we can start fundraising.”

The group homes closed the summer of 2012 when the occupants were moved to group homes on Glenridge Drive and Green Street.

Wilson said demolishing the buildings was expected to cost the state about $100,000, a cost that would be avoided by the state if it sold or gave away the buildings instead of demolishing them.

Two of the buildings could be easily converted to veterans housing. They’re already equipped with conference rooms, private bedrooms, central kitchens and strong foundations, according to LaChance.

When it comes to helping Riverview forensic patients, Wathen said state officials arranged for and found 10 beds within the existing stock of group home housing for patients making the transition back into society. Forensic patients are people who have committed a violent or criminal act and have been ordered to the hospital by the court.

Wathen said most of the beds are in the Augusta area. He said the department will use a new analytical tool that could speed the process of determining when patients are ready to move out of secure group homes into less secure supported apartments. And moving patients out of group homes into apartments faster will, in turn, free up spots in group homes for patients getting out of Riverview.

Wathen said DHHS also committed to developing six outpatient forensic patient beds through Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center in Bangor.

In December, Wathen told a legislative committee that six Riverview patients had been cleared to leave Riverview but couldn’t find group home placements, and three more were expected to get permission to leave in the next few months.

Wathen said the changes he discussed Wednesday had already allowed eight patients to leave Riverview for group homes.

Keith Edwards - 621-5647 kedwards@centralmaine.com

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