The Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center has made some tweaks to its proposal to put in a transitional residency program in the former home of Dave and Barb Erickson in advance of two city committees discussing the request next week.
The La Crosse Plan Commission and the Judiciary and Administration Committee will meet Monday and Tuesday, respectively, to discuss whether to grant the Tomah VA Medical Center a conditional-use permit to allow a community living arrangement at 3120 Farnam St., donated by the Ericksons to the VA with the idea that the seven-bedroom, handicap-accessible home would serve local veterans.
The facility, which requires the permit to move forward because it is within 2,500 feet of a similar facility, faced some backlash in October from neighbors concerned about security and was delayed two months to give people a chance to address those concerns.
Tomah VA director Victoria Brahm understands how neighbors can be wary, given stories of bad apples in the news and portrayals of some veterans in the media.
“It can be hard to understand if you haven’t worked with veterans and heard their stories as people. Veterans are people, too, and people have issues, veterans or non-veterans,” Brahm said. “These are not scary, scary individuals.”
The people in the work therapy residence will be screened thoroughly to ensure they’re ready for the final step toward independent living, and anyone with a violent history or a history of sexual violence will remain in treatment on the Tomah VAMC campus. Only stable veterans will be admitted to the La Crosse facility.
“These are treated individuals who have participated in the program willingly and with a mission to succeed. These are the ones who are screened by professionals here at the VA, and they will make it,” Brahm said, adding that the average stay nationwide at the VA’s 41 similar facilities is six to 12 months.
The facility’s leaders are trying to address neighbors’ concerns, including staffing, screening and parking.
“We’re trying to give and take, but only to the point where it doesn’t affect the integrity of the program,” Brahm said.
The planning department on Friday was intending to recommend that the commission refer the request for an additional 30 days, allowing more time for neighbors to learn about the project, according to senior planner Tim Acklin.
Acklin received the VAMC’s revisions late Thursday and didn’t have time to review them before posting the agenda for Monday’s meeting.
“Due to the time it was submitted, we haven’t quite had enough time to revise our staff report and look at it right now, but we do intend to incorporate it into our presentation,” Acklin said.
The VA revised parts of the program, limiting the residents to eight from the previously proposed 10, and increasing staffing. In addition to the full-time care manager who oversees the program, Brahm is proposing adding security of some kind, ensuring there is 24/7 on-site supervision, in addition to the two resident managers.
Residents will be required to be employed, keep all scheduled treatment appointments and take their medications. Overnight guests, firearms, alcohol and drugs will be forbidden.
“That stuff is highly monitored and supervised. There’s someone there all the time so these things do not occur,” Brahm said.
The veterans also will be required to participate in community-based activities and volunteer, which Brahm said was part of their therapy prior to the creation of this program. The idea is to get them involved in the community, not only through their employment but also through their social lives.
“They need to be fully comfortable being a part of that community,” Brahm said.
The VA has also agreed to make a payment in lieu of taxes to the city to cover the costs of municipal services to the treatment facility.
“I think it’s a win-win, if we can just get people to take a leap and try it,” Brahm said.
She added that the VA has run compensated work therapy transitional residence programs to assist veterans since 1994, and 20 of them are successfully integrated into local communities, enriching both the community and the veterans the VA serves.
“Whatever the outcome, we appreciate having the opportunity, and we would be remiss not to try,” Brahm said.