AP NEWS

VA ends funding for homeless vet residence in Helena

March 2, 2019

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — After losing its funding from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, a Helena transitional residence for homeless veterans is operating on a month-to-month basis and looking for sources of revenue.

The 12-bed Willis Cruse House has relied on VA funding for the last 16 years. However, the facility lost the grant in October 2018 without receiving an explanation, according to Montana Veterans Foundation Director Desiree Bain.

“I was surprised when I found out there wouldn’t be any funding. I didn’t expect it,” Bain said, adding that the facility easily passed all nine parts of the inspection process.

Current operating costs for the home are between $10,000 and $15,000 per month. Expenses vary widely and include food, toiletries, utility bills, a mortgage and payroll. Drug and alcohol screenings also are part of the home’s expenses due to the program’s restrictions on residents.

Public donations, grants, fundraisers, garage sales, and food and necessity item drives are a few ways Bain has continued to raise money for the home. She said some area businesses have even kicked in a portion of their profits to the home. Bain has done everything she can think to keep the house operating for the past five months.

“Someone passed away and left $11,000 to the house in their will,” she told the Independent Record . “That’s March, if I cut costs to the bare minimum.”

Even if Willis Cruse receives the VA grant during the next funding cycle, Bain said the facility will be on its own until 2020. Until then, she is scraping together anything she can.

Bain now is considering funding sources through Lewis and Clark County.

“I love this place and would do anything to keep it open,” she said. “Even if I have to cut my own pay and volunteer.”

This isn’t the first time Willis Cruse has had funding troubles. Bain cited a previous incident when the garage caught fire and many veterans were moved into hotel rooms. The home was not meeting the VA’s required criteria at the time, but received an extension and was eventually funded.

Meanwhile, the foundation and its former president, Michael Hampson, are being sued by a man who says they backed out of a contract to sell the facility after he spent a considerable sum to have it inspected. A complaint filed in Helena District Court says Zachary Warden paid to have the work completed after entering into a buy-sell agreement with Hampson, only to find out later that the foundation never authorized Hampson to sell the property in the first place.

Warden is seeking damages in excess of $30,000. A trial is scheduled for January 2020.

Hampson no longer is involved with the foundation, but is listed online as a founder.

This all took place months before Bain stepped into the director seat. And the business behind the foundation is far separated from the veterans who depend on it.

“There are so few places like this,” said Mark Follweiler, a U.S. Army veteran who currently resides in Willis Cruse. “It’s a place where we can feel safe and not worry about being on the streets, or where we will be tomorrow.”

Follweiler, a Missoula resident, said he stayed in the home briefly two years ago. He and his service dog, Reveille, wound up back in Willis Cruse about three months ago after running into financial struggles.

“Every bit of my money was going toward rent,” he said. “I had no opportunity to save, and I’m using this as a way to get back on my feet.”

Follweiler said things are working out for him this time around. He is a fly-fishing guide in the summer and works odd jobs in the winter to supplement his VA pension. He is saving money to buy a boat so he can guarantee a more stable line of work for himself.

“There is no place like this in Missoula,” Follweiler said. “There are a lot of people depending on this place, short or long term.”

Bain said the best thing about Willis Cruse is that residents have two years to work on their program. The program primarily aids veterans with financial or medical struggles.

Both Follweiler and Bain said it would be a shame if the home shut down. The beds are full year-round and Bain said there aren’t any other good options for homeless veteran men.

“There isn’t much program-wise to overcome the barriers of being homeless,” Bain said. She noted that one of the only other options in Helena is God’s Love homeless shelter, which also is often at capacity.

There are many ways to donate to the Willis Cruse House. Donations can be given through the Montana Veterans Foundation website (mtvf.org/williscruse/) or via Facebook (facebook.com/WillisCruseHouse/). Additionally, Bain said many individuals simply mail checks to the home, which is located at 1112 Leslie Ave., Helena, MT 59601.

Item donations also help alleviate some of the financial burdens, but money helps more than anything, Bain said.

The Montana Veterans Foundation home has been serving homeless and struggling veterans for the better part of 20 years. In that time the home has helped more than 900 veterans successfully complete a recovery program and go on to lead productive lives.

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