After nearly five years of planning, a homeless veterans apartment building in Hahnville has been stalled due to planning and zoning restrictions, prompting volunteers to spend the night out in the elements in solidarity with those left out.
Lisa Carey, director of Veterans Housing Outreach Ministries and owner of the disused apartment building located at 116 Byrd Lane in Hahnville, organized a “sleep out” to protest the mistreatment Carey said the group has received from the St. Charles Parish Planning and Zoning Department.
“We feel strongly that our veterans, our seniors and the handicapped veterans all have been affected by the harassment we have received,” she said.
Carey said she has been trying to open the building to veterans since 2010.
“Unfortunately, the Hahnville site has been met with months of resistance, code violations and setbacks while trying to house and feed veterans. St. Charles Parish officials continue to keep the doors closed to 25 needy American veterans,” she said.
Although the homeless housing complex was temporarily open in 2012, the building was damaged by Hurricane Isaac and closed again shortly thereafter. Since that time Carey said it has been an ongoing struggle to reopen.
“We really thought we had the blessing of the parish and now it is nearly 2015,” she said. “I know the rules are not that stringent because the building was open earlier.”
Carey said she feels like her organization has been unfairly targeted by planning and zoning.
“I am just hurt by it, not just for myself but because it is catering to veterans,” she said.
Over the past few months Veterans Housing Outreach Ministries has had several hundred volunteers donate time and work into sprucing up the property.
“We’ve had nearly 300 missionary workers come out just this year, some from as far as South Africa,” she said. That is why she and others organized the “sleep out.”
“We want to make a statement to the public that veterans need a place to live. This place is virtually ready to be occupied at this time and please open our doors,” she said. “Nobody should be without a home, particularly in a rural area.”
Carey said the group’s dealings with the parish government have gotten so bad that Parish President V.J. St. Pierre has said under no circumstances will he allow a facility to house the homeless in the area.
“I received a call from V.J. St. Pierre who said ‘we don’t want those people in our community,’” she said.
However, officials with the St. Charles Parish government dispute Carey’s account of events.
“St. Charles Parish has been working steadily with Ms. Carey to accomplish her goals, and we appreciate her endeavor, which will provide housing for homeless veterans while beautifying and putting a property back into use,” Parish spokeswoman Renee Simpson said. “However, until the lingering issues can be resolved, the parish cannot permit Veterans Housing Outreach for occupancy. Any delays can be ended should the appropriate work be completed and the organization apply for the proper permit.”
Simpson said that St. Pierre made it clear to Carey that he does not want anyone occupying the apartments – veterans or otherwise – until the issues are resolved.
“According to our records, an inspection was performed on one of the properties on July 21, 2014, during which multiple issues were observed, including those relating to sewer, building code, fire marshal and drainage compliance,” Simpson said.
In contrast, Carey said that she has continuously made improvements to the building. She says that after each new inspection the parish finds problems with the structure.
“I don’t think it will ever be finished with this type of attitude,” she said. “It is never written in writing what we have to do. When they go back they will find a new set of things that are wrong.”
However, according to a string of emails sent to the Herald-Guide by the parish, Carey has received a list of everything that needs to be corrected.
Carey feels that parish officials have the wrong idea about what she is trying to accomplish in Hahnville.
“It is not like we are trying to bring in people from another country. These are American veterans that need somewhere to live,” she said.
Most distressing to Carey is that time is running out for some of those she wants to help.
“It is just a real mess. I want our veterans to get on board and get a safe, clean environment so we can help them get their health care needs taken care of and maneuver them through the VA system before they are dead,” she said.
Former Gov. Edwin Edwards, who is currently running for the 6th Congressional District seat, spoke at an event held at the Hahnville site last month. He said everyone in the community should pitch in to overcome any obstacles Carey and Veterans Housing Outreach Ministries have in their way.
“Not only the parish, but local businesses and churches ought to help her get started. What she is trying to do is a worthy thing trying to provide a home for homeless veterans,” Edwards said. “That is one of the things of highest calling as person could do.”