EL PASO, Texas — A recent decision by the Department of Veterans Affairs to limit choices for homeless veterans seeking shelter from El Paso's near-freezing temperatures has some lawmakers looking for answers.
Recovery Alliance of El Paso officials had planned to create what was considered a model center for homeless veterans that would have provided emergency and transitional shelter, nationally recognized drug and alcohol counseling, job programs and other services.
But Veterans Affairs officials in El Paso and Amarillo failed to respond in a timely manner and created hurdle after hurdle — some of which appeared to make no sense, according to critics — for the project. Ultimately, the alliance's contract with the VA expired and the shelter plan appears to be falling apart.
"We need to radically change how the VA works," said Beto O'Rourke, a Democrat who will take U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes' seat in the House of Representatives this January. "This absolutely has to be at the top of our priority list."
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, is "inquiring with the VA and requesting an explanation of why the contract was not renewed," a spokeswoman said.
Senator-elect Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, Representative-elect Pete Gallego, a Democrat who represents some of El Paso's Lower Valley, and Reyes, also a Democrat, did not respond to requests for comment.
Numerous national Veterans Affairs press officers referred questions to the local VA office. And the VA Office of Homeless Veterans Programs director could not be reached for comment.
Some critics feel that despite the oft-repeated platitude to "support our troops," when it comes to following through on that promise after the fighting is over, the country — both under Democratic and Republican administrations — has a poor record.
The VA's objections to the plan centered on a concrete school building the alliance purchased on Hueco Avenue that was larger and provided better accommodations than the Welch Avenue facility it had been using.
VA officials, over a span of three inspections, presented lists of "deficiencies," according to emails provided by alliance officials.
Sometimes those lists repeated problems that had been fixed and other times they misstated the actual condition of the building. In many cases, the listed deficiencies were vague and provided little or no indication of what was needed to fix the problem.
And, in nearly all cases, the VA had to be prodded to respond to alliance requests for more information or inspections.
"The El Paso VA had a contractual agreement with El Paso Alliance to provide emergency bed shelter for our homeless Veterans," the local VA office said Thursday in a statement. "The new location was inspected numerous times and deficiencies were identified. Despite both parties working hard to solve the issues, safety concerns remained.
"Because we are unable to compromise on the safety of our veterans, the El Paso VA allowed the contract to expire at the end of September."
By that time, the alliance had spent more than $100,000 in donated labor, materials and money trying to meet the VA's demands. And that was in spite of the fact that city inspectors — fire, health and building code — had months before they granted the building a "lodging license," which means it is fit for use as a hotel with a restaurant.
"We need to see, could you allow more local decision-making and control?" O'Rourke said. "Let's allow local regulatory agencies like the city of El Paso to make the call. The city's willing to make the tough calls."
Alliance officials say they walked into an endless maze at the VA that drained their resources and left them with nothing to show for their efforts.
"They faced a nightmare bureaucracy and, at the end of it, there are no beds for homeless veterans through this program," said O'Rourke, who made reforming the VA a pillar of his campaign.
"From everything I've heard from them (alliance officials) and everything I've read, they're doing everything they can to meet the conditions set by the VA," he said. "It appears there is a troubling lack of communication from the VA."
During his campaign, O'Rourke pointed to an exclusive El Paso Times story from 2008 detailing an internal VA report stating that the El Paso system had the lowest user satisfaction rate of any installation in the nation.
So how do you change a federal department that remains relatively unchanged through Republican and Democratic administrations?
"It involves breaking down the bureaucracy," O'Rourke said. "It appears to be too much bureaucracy that is more focused on finding fault instead of helping the people they are supposed to serve."
O'Rourke said there is evidence that the VA has a structural problem, as opposed to a lack of resources. "Adding more to the bureaucracy doesn't necessarily get us closer to a solution," he said.
And he went further than the problems the alliance is having locally.
O'Rourke suggested that the VA should approve claims first and then pick a random sample for fraud investigations. "That would get rid of a large part of the VA bureaucracy," O'Rourke said.
Eliminating that amount of bureaucracy would free financial resources that could be used to pay claims, he said.
"Winter's beginning and I would have hoped they (VA officials) could renew the (alliance's) contract, at least provisionally," O'Rourke said. "It's about the homeless veterans having a place to stay."