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Long IslandSuffolk

Heating failure forces closure of homeless shelter at VA Northport

The homeless shelter for veterans at the Northport

The homeless shelter for veterans at the Northport VA was closed earlier this month when the heating system failed. Jan. 31, 2018 Credit: Raychel Brightman

The Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center has temporarily closed a 42-bed homeless shelter in an aging building on its Northport campus, forcing the relocation of dozens of homeless veterans to other locations across Long Island.

Officials at the giant medical center decided to shut down the shelter after a heating, ventilation and air conditioning system failed just after the record cold stretch in mid-January.

In all, 33 veterans living at the facility were relocated to other shelters operated by Beacon House, the nonprofit organization that also runs the shelter at the VA, said Northport director Scott Guermonprez in an e-mailed statement.

Northport officials say the heating system in the 90-year-old building is beyond repair and that it will be mid-August before it can be replaced, at an expected cost of $1.1 million.

Veterans advocates say the closure is a blow because having the shelter right on the Northport campus is instrumental in getting needed services directly to homeless veterans who might not otherwise connect with the agency.

In addition to providing beds, the shelter acts as a kind of triage center, assessing the reasons a veteran fell into homelessness, and connecting them with VA medical and psychological services, job counseling, cash benefits and other resources to help them return to more productive lives.

Guermonprez said the medical center is transporting displaced residents seeking these services between homes where they have been relocated — one is in Riverhead — and the medical center.

“I couldn’t be more proud of the teamwork displayed by Northport VAMC Social Work staff and our United Veterans Beacon House partners to relocate Veterans successfully from our homeless residence in such a short time,” Guermonprez said in his statement. “It was truly a joint effort.”

VA officials said the heating system failure came about because the building’s 1997 conversion from office space to residential use strained the capacity of its furnace. Officials said the structure’s electrical system was insufficient to support a replacement HVAC system.

The heating failure is the latest in a series of infrastructure problems at the crumbling medical center, ranging from rotting roofs to flooding hallways.

Two years ago, a cooling system failed at its main hospital building, forcing surgeries to be halted there for several months. A year earlier, another cooling system failure in the main hospital building forced the facility to rent temporary chillers, at a cost of $120,000 per month.

The Northport center is considered a vital asset to Long Island’s estimated 130,000 veterans, many of whom need care for combat-related psychological problems, war wounds, or geriatric maladies.

The shelter, which provides short-term stays for some 400 clients per year, is designed to put homeless veterans on a path leading to transitional housing and then permanent homes.

Age-related maintenance issues are confronting VA medical facilities from coast to coast.

According to a 2015 report by the McKinsey & Company consulting group, the VA “is expected to face accelerating and likely unfunded capital requirements driven by maintenance to aging infrastructure . . . “

Last April, the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Phil Roe (R-Tenn) said Northport alone is in need of a “staggering” $279 million in capital spending.

And the problem may get worse, some experts say, as the VA struggles with Congress to secure more maintenance funding even as VA watchdogs and congressional critics have accused the giant health agency of mismanaging the money it already has.

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