GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — After years of scathing headlines, the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans is under new leadership with an optimistic outlook on the future.
The home in northeast Grand Rapids houses some 220 people. A new $60 million home is being built on site next to the existing building, which was constructed in the 1800s. The new home is expected to open in the spring of 2021 and house 128 residents.
Leadership at the veterans home couldn’t wait for the construction to begin making wholesale change.
The state-run facility had been plagued with bad press that stemmed from problems that began when it contracted with a private company to outsource many jobs. A harsh audit released in 2016 reported the home’s failings, multiple employees were charged criminally for how they treated residents and lawsuits were filed alleging neglect and abuse.
Tiffany Carr, director of member and community relations at the home, said the audit’s findings made for some of her darkest days on the job.
“When that kind of report card comes out, it’s kind of hard to swallow,” Carr said. “There were times where I was a little shy of saying where I worked.”
She’s glad she waited out the storm. Following the audit came a new day at the facility. New leadership has been brought in and the home has contracted with new companies for workers.
“I feel like our legislators finally heard many of us who stayed the course through the hard times for these vets,” Carr said. “All of the leaders here are willing to go in and take a look at what’s not working and involve the people who do the work.”
Lee Walton is proof of the experience Carr says residents have now.
“I love it,” Walton said of the home.
Walton served in the U.S. Air Force from 1963 to 1967. He took advantage of outpatient services at the home in the years prior to living there.
“I used to joke with my ex-wife about it. I’d say, ‘That’s where I’ll probably end up at’,” Walton said with a laugh. “I guess I really meant it.”
He said the he receives quality care from the home’s staff and is happy to be surrounded by those who also served their country.
“There’s no other place I’d rather be in this condition,” Walton said.
There’s a lot more change on the horizon at the home as the construction of the new facility continues. The work being done has created a new favorite pastime for Walton and some of his fellow members, watching the construction progress from a room set up overlooking the site.
“I get up every day and come down here and go up there and watch it,” Walton said.
The new facility will provide residents with their own private rooms and bathrooms.
“To have to go to a shower room to shower, it just doesn’t feel and it’s never felt good,” Carr said. “Being able to have all those amenities in that new home to me will just enhance their quality of life.”
Carr promised that the home’s smaller size won’t mean veterans wanting to stay at the facility will be forced out.
“Absolutely not,” she said. “As the VA started to compensate families and veterans to be able to have choices, there wasn’t such a need for people to be forced to come here. They can stay in their hometowns if they wish… If they want to stay near their family, the VA will pay for them and their cost of care. That wasn’t always true up until several years ago.”
Eventually the plan is for the state to have several smaller facilities like the one being constructed in Grand Rapids instead of just a few of the large facilities.
“Way better than building massive buildings like this anymore that feel very institutional,” Carr said. “It just doesn’t make sense to do this anymore.”
Carr is part of a statewide effort to improve the home and its image, but the past still haunts it.
“We’re still marred,” Carr said. “I take phone calls every single day (from) people wondering and questioning from what they heard from 2014 and ’16.”
She says she invites those wondering about the home to come visit and tour the facility.
“I promise you this,” Carr emphasized, “if there wasn’t a change, I wouldn’t be standing here today.”
The Grand Rapids Home for Veterans accepts tax-deductible donations online. The home also enlists the help of hundreds of volunteers to help run the operation and make the facility feel like home for the veterans.