Homeless Vets Find Housing on Old Walter Reed Grounds, Regardless of Discharge Status

Former Army National Guard Spec. Donald Carey and his service dog “Jeep”
Former Army National Guard Spec. Donald Carey and his service dog “Jeep” in his apartment at the HELP Walter Reed Apartments for homeless veterans on the grounds of the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., in May 2024. (Photo by Rich Sisk/Military.com)

Former Army National Guard Spc. Donald Carey, a Desert Storm veteran, had reached the point in his long bout with homelessness where he was telling himself and anyone who would listen: "Just get me off the street. Gotta' get off the street."

Former Marine Lance Cpl. Byron Malcolm Ballard, who served a harrowing tour with the Corps in Lebanon, had grown weary of sleeping behind a library and getting into fights that were rowdy enough to land him in court several times.

Both Carey, 69, and Ballard, 61, had grown up in Washington, D.C., and had spent years off and on in the shifting ranks of the District's homeless after leaving the service; both preferred the street to city shelters; and both have now found a haven on the grounds of the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center in a unique project for homeless veterans that shuns government rent vouchers.

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HELP USA, the housing nonprofit, has overseen the HELP Walter Reed Veteran Apartments project to convert the former Building 14, which used to house troops convalescing from treatment at Walter Reed, into 77 small "efficiency" apartments for homeless veterans.

The project became possible when the Base Realignment and Closure Act of 2005, known as BRAC, allowed the Army to close the 110-acre Walter Reed site in 2011 and relocate to Bethesda, Maryland, to consolidate its operations with the National Naval Medical Center.

As part of the deal, the District of Columbia paid $22 million to the federal government in 2016 to acquire 66 acres of the site for a mixed-use development called The Parks at Walter Reed, to include the HELP USA apartments for homeless veterans.

In the process, HELP USA took an approach that was radically different from the course chosen by other nonprofits by refusing to take Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing, or HUD-VASH, vouchers -- the collaborative program of the Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs that combines HUD's Housing Choice Voucher for rental assistance with the supportive services of the VA.

On its website, HELP USA said that the aim was "to be sure the project could house and provide services to those veterans with the greatest needs, regardless of their status with the Veterans Administration hospital system or whether they were honorably discharged from the military."

"We intentionally are not using HUD-VASH" to be open to a population of homeless veterans who may not be eligible for the HUD-VASH program due to the nature of their discharges under less-than-honorable conditions, said David Cleghorn, president of HELPDevCo, the nonprofit development company affiliated with HELP USA.

In phone interviews and statements to Military.com, Cleghorn said, "We wanted a wide net" in bringing in veterans referred by the District, but "it does not mean those who are eligible for HUD-VASH are prohibited" from becoming tenants at the Walter Reed apartments.

The VA confirmed that none of the tenants in the 77 units at the HELP USA Walter Reed Veteran Apartments was receiving HUD-VASH vouchers, although some may have received case management from the VA and help with transitional housing as they awaited placement at Walter Reed.

In a statement, VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes added, "The work to end veteran homelessness cannot be accomplished by VA alone. VA relies on partnerships across all levels of government and with public and private entities to ensure that homeless veterans have access to the support they need to obtain and sustain stable housing."

HELP USA used low-income housing tax credits as the main financing mechanism to develop the Walter Reed apartments, Cleghorn said. "It's not easy to do these projects, but the tax credit is the driver. You can't do them without the tax credits."

In his estimation, the tenants at Walter Reed "are happy to be there," Cleghorn said, although Carey and Ballard had some complaints about the small size of the one-room apartments and the bathrooms.

Winding road from service to housing

In interviews at the Walter Reed apartments last week, both veterans openly discussed their time in the military and on the street and how they coped.

Ballard said he joined the Marines right out of Theodore Roosevelt High School in the District and had a 3371 military occupational specialty, or cook.

He was serving with 1st Battalion, 10th Marines, in Beirut when a Hezbollah truck bomber attacked the Marine barracks at the airport on Oct. 23, 1983, killing 220 Marines, 18 sailors and three soldiers, and injuring more than 100.

"At the time of the bombing, I was at the American University of Beirut" on a detail about five miles from the airport and escaped the terrorist attack, Ballard said.

Former Marine Lance Cpl. Byron Malcolm Ballard
Former Marine Lance Cpl. Byron Malcolm Ballard in his apartment at the HELP Walter Reed Apartments for homeless veterans on the grounds of the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C., in May 2024. (Photo by Rich Sisk/Military.com)

The rest of his time in the Corps was uneventful until he went on leave back home in Washington, D.C., and was partying "with some people smoking marijuana and things." He tested positive nine days before he was to be discharged and spent 30 days in the brig, leaving the military with a general discharge under honorable conditions, Ballard said.

He returned to D.C., where there was a guy who knew a guy who got him a job working the graveyard shift at an all-night convenience store. He had an apartment and said, "I was fine until 2002" but "you know what happened. There was a woman" -- and a descent into smoking crack before she ran off with a new boyfriend.

"I got an eviction notice," and it was downhill from there, Ballard said. He still managed to pick up jobs and rode trains and buses to kill time and sleep between shifts. Then, a friend told him that he needed to get into one of the city's shelters, but when he arrived, a bunch of guys were standing at the front door smoking crack, Ballard said.

He wondered: "What the hell am I getting myself into?"

His last stop on the street was behind a library in northwest Washington, D.C., before he heard about the Walter Reed apartments and moved into a unit down the hall from Carey in February 2020.

Carey, wearing a Desert Storm ballcap and accompanied by his service dog "Jeep," said he served with the 547th Transportation Company of the Washington, D.C., National Guard in the 1990s operation to oust the Iraqi forces of dictator Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.

He left the Guard in 1995 and spoke vaguely about "making some money under the table" in the years that followed. There was a job selling cars, he said, "but the thing is I'm not a clock guy, I'm not a morning guy."

Sometimes, he would find a place to sleep near the historic Howard Theatre, and then there was a guy at a construction site who let him stay there for a while.

"It took me a long time to find out what to do" and make his way to the Walter Reed apartments, he said. Occasionally, he'll run into other veterans who are still out on the street. "It's about 50-50 with them," meaning that about half want to get off the street and about half don't, he said.

Mayors battle rising rents to house vets

The nation's homeless population has declined by 55% since 2010, according to HUD, but the VA and advocacy groups have been alarmed by a recent reversal of the trend.

The annual Point-in-Time, or PIT, survey for 2023, conducted by HUD each year on one night in January, estimated that more than 640,000 Americans were without safe and stable housing in January 2023. The number of veterans among the 640,000 totaled 35,574 -- an increase of 7.4% over January 2022.

The "bottom line" for the PIT numbers was that "more veterans needed homeless assistance resources than the existing capacity could help," the VA said in a December press release.

The VA cited a number of factors in the rise of veteran homelessness, including an end to the restrictions on evictions in effect during the COVID-19 pandemic and a lack of affordable housing nationwide.

"We do have a rising homeless population" in President Joe Biden's hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania, Scranton Mayor Paige Cognetti said in a brief interview with Military.com. Rents are rising across the region, Cognetti said, and "at the end of the day, we don't have enough housing."

Cognetti was among nearly 50 mayors who went to Capitol Hill at the end of April to join a U.S. Conference of Mayors lobbying effort to change current rules that bar veterans who receive total or near total disability compensation from affordable housing in many areas because their VA disability benefits put them over income eligibility limits.

In a phone interview after the Conference of Mayors meeting, Lacey Beaty, the mayor of Beaverton, Oregon, and an Army combat medic who served in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, said one of the problems for homeless veterans in her area near Portland is that some of them don't qualify for the HUD-VASH voucher because of the nature of their discharges under-less-than honorable conditions. Even when the veteran does rate a HUD-VASH voucher, "it's hard to find a place that will take it."

In an effort to aid veterans whose discharges may bar them from HUD-VASH vouchers and other VA benefits, the VA last month expanded eligibility for VA assistance to some former service members who did not receive an honorable or general discharge.

"We encourage former service members with other-than-honorable discharges to apply for VA care and benefits today," said VA Secretary Denis McDonough in April. "Although VA cannot change your discharge status, we want to provide you with any health care or benefits we can," he said.

Under the changes, veterans with other-than-honorable discharges for offenses that include misconduct or homosexuality will be able to apply for VA health care and other benefits.

The new rules would also let veterans apply who may have been discharged for issues related to mental health or post-traumatic stress disorder from combat exposure, or who may have been victims of sexual assault.

What the VA is calling its "Final Rule to Update and Clarify Regulatory Bars to Benefits Based on Character of Discharge" still puts "a significant burden on veterans who will have to undergo a lengthy, individualized review in order to gain access to supportive services and health care at VA," said Dana Montalto of the Veterans Legal Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School.

In a phone interview, Montalto, a pro bono legal counsel to the National Veterans Legal Services Program and Swords to Plowshares advocacy group, said the VA's "Final Rule" is an important step forward but added that the required review for veterans to gain VA access "can take months or even years."

Related: VA Opens Door for More Vets with Other Than Honorable Discharges to Receive Health Care and Benefits

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