VA, charity send veteran to the streets after attempts to blow t - | WBTV Charlotte

VA, charity send veteran to the streets after attempts to blow the whistle on veteran's shelter

(Corey Schmidt | WBTV) (Corey Schmidt | WBTV)
(Corey Schmidt | WBTV) (Corey Schmidt | WBTV)

An Asheville veteran faces life on the streets after trying to blow the whistle on questionable practices at the long-term residential facility for homeless veterans at which he was staying.

Greg Armento moved into the Veterans Restoration Quarters run by the Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry in September 2015. He had recently moved back to Asheville, in need of a place to live after losing his job as a graphic artist.

The ABCCM runs the Veterans Restoration Quarters with money from a grant program administered by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs known as the Grant Per Diem program.

The Grant Per Diem program pays organizations a daily amount of money to provide homeless veterans room and board. Organizations that house veterans as part of the program take in roughly $1,300 each month for every veteran given food and shelter.

Armento, who joined the program as a resident at ABCCM’s Veterans Restoration Quarters two years ago, has been raising questions about the organizations’ practices for more than a year.

Residents at the living quarters are required to perform unpaid labor as a condition of living at the facility, according to Armento and documents reviewed by WBTV.

Each veteran is required to perform “service hours” as part of his stay at the facility. In court documents, lawyers for ABCCM have called the service hours voluntary but Armento disputes that characterization.

“You’ve got to get up at four o’clock in the morning and scrub toilets and not get paid for it and you’ve got to do it every day,” Armento told WBTV. “Your alternative is, if you don’t like the rules here, there’s the door.”

In addition to living at the ABCCM facility, Armento also worked as a front desk manager for the organization. Armento provided WBTV a summary of his time spent working for the organization, often 40 or more hours a week.

But, documents Armento gave WBTV show, he was often paid for far fewer hours than that. Of the more than 1,300 hours Armento kept track of working, he said ABCCM failed to pay him for more than 300 of them.

“I was putting in about 40 (hours) a week or more and only getting paid for about 16 or maybe 24 hours,” Armento said.

First, he called Senator Thom Tillis’ (R-NC) office. When that didn’t lead to a change, Armento filed a lawsuit against ABCCM in federal court.

A letter from the VA to Tillis’ office confirms the local Asheville VA Medical Center reviewed Armento’s complaints of being forced to work for free as a condition of living at ABCCM’s facility and confirmed that was a requirement to participate in the charity’s service hour program.

There is nothing in the VA’s manual on the Gran Per Diem program that says a charity participating in the program should require veterans to perform service hours as a condition of receiving room and board.

A court filing on behalf of ABCCM in response to Armento’s lawsuit characterizes the service hour requirement as “voluntary” service, even though the same filing acknowledges a document from the VRQ that clearly states service hours are mandatory for staying at the facility.

Armento didn’t get help from calling Tillis’ office or the VA but he did get an eviction notice from ABCCM.

The 62-year-old veteran has been told that he must vacate the VRQ by Tuesday, September 5, 2017.

Armento said staff at the facility began to retaliate against him soon after his attempts to blow the whistle on their practice of requiring service hours.

First, he said, they tried to take away his job. Then, he said, they told him he would have to leave the VRQ.

Armento must leave the facility by September 5, 2017, exactly two years from the day he moved into the facility.

“Mr. Armento has exhausted his two years of services,” Scott Rodgers, ABCCM’s executive director, said in an email to WBTV.

The VA’s handbook for the Grant Per Diem program says veterans should aim to participate in the program for no more than two years; the program’s aim is to help veterans transition from homelessness into stable employment and living situations.

But the guidelines governing the program also clearly say veterans can stay in the program longer if necessary.

“Individual participants may be extended past their 24 months, ‘if permanent housing for the Veteran has not been located or if the Veteran requires additional time to prepare for independent living’ (see 38 CFR 61.80(d)),” the GPD handbook says.

ABCCM told a federal judge in August that Armento’s continued residence at its veterans facility would go unfunded.

“If ABCCM is required to continue housing Plaintiff beyond September 5, 2017, ABCCM will be forced to draw exclusively on its own funds and will not be able to free a bed for one of the individuals on the waitlist,” the facility’s supervisor attested in an affidavit.

The sworn statement ignores the fact that, under the law, the VA can continue paying for Armento to stay at the facility past the two-year mark.

Armento must leave ABCCM’s facility on Tuesday. He said the VA has not offered to provide him any additional help with housing.

“The VA just seems to dither and delay,” Armento said, noting that he felt like the VA has turned its back on him.

A spokeswoman for the VA claimed Armento has been offered a number of housing alternatives but, when pressed to provide details of what those housing alternatives were and when specific housing arrangements were offered, could not provide any.

“Housing options offered to Mr. Armento include: Homeless Prevention, Rapid Rehousing Programs, Senior Housing, and Public Housing.  He was also offered temporary housing at the Salvation Army or other emergency shelters until more permanent housing could be found,” VA spokeswoman Armenthis Lester said in an email to WBTV.

Lester could not provide any specific dates on which specific alternate housing was offered to Armento or what that alternate housing arrangement was.

Similarly, Lester incorrectly told WBTV that Armento could no longer participate in the Grant Per Diem program.

“It is my understanding that the Veteran is not eligible for extension. However, you will need to reach out to ABCCM to get further details,” Lester said.

In a follow-up conversation, Lester could not explain why ABCCM would be responsible for determining who is and is not eligible for an extension of the GPD program even though the VA administers the federal funds and has oversight authority over the organizations that house veterans.

Armento said last-minute assistance from the VA was his last hope for staying off the streets. Now, because he has not received that help, he will not have anywhere to go.

“Because I spoke out, I am an outcast,” Armento said. “And this Tuesday I’ll be homeless.”

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