Two years ago, 64-year-old Air Force veteran Cheryl Stewart began gathering books and blankets to donate to a state-run nursing home for veterans, which was scheduled to open this spring.
But though it finished building the 300-bed facility in April, the California Department of Veterans Affairs said this week the state budget crunch means no veterans will be able to move into the Fresno veterans home until October 2013, more than a year from now.
The same is true for a new 150-bed facility in Redding that the department recently finished building, said Jaime Arteaga, a spokesman for the agency.
“Right now, they're just empty buildings. They don’t even have furniture,” Arteaga said, “so we are running the air conditioner, running water through the pipes, maintaining the grounds and making sure that everything is in good repair.”
The state budget signed last week by Gov. Jerry Brown sets aside $4.2 million to operate the homes over the next year, enough money to “ramp up” staffing, Arteaga said, but not enough to serve any residents.
Those funds are in addition to the $280,000 a month the agency spends simply to keep the homes from falling into disrepair while the buildings sit vacant.
Assuming the Legislature increases funding for the homes next year, the agency would be able to move in eight new residents a month, Arteaga said. At that rate, it would take the department more than three years to fill the homes. According to the department, nearly 900 veterans have already expressed interest in living in the Fresno and Redding facilities.
But critics say those facilities are just the latest example of waste at the agency, which has asked voters and the state legislature for money to build veterans homes but then fails to staff them once they are built.
“The idea that these are just sitting empty is just a phenomenal waste,” said Amy Fairweather, policy director at Swords to Plowshares, a veterans advocacy group.
Statewide, the agency’s network of eight nursing homes for veterans house 1,697 veterans – even though they have space for 3,143 residents – leaving more than 1,400 empty beds.
In addition to the Fresno and Redding veterans homes, the veterans home in West Los Angeles, where construction completed two years ago, has not received regulatory approvals to operate as a skilled nursing facility.
As a result, the West Los Angeles home, with space for 396, has just 83 residents.
Statewide, more than 600 veterans are on the agency’s waiting list; three-quarters of them are waiting for a place in Yountville, the agency's oldest and largest home.
“We need these veterans homes," said Stewart, the Air Force veteran and commander of American Legion Post 12 in Selma, 17 miles southeast of Fresno.
Of the 120 members of her American Legion post, Stewart said, just five are younger than 65.
“These are Vietnam, Korean and World War II veterans,” she said. “We signed on the dotted line to do anything for our country including giving up our life, and they promised us health care for the rest of our lives, but they don’t take care of us.”