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Veterans Facing Homelessness Grill VA Officials with Tough Questions at Conference

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(Photo: MGN) (Photo: MGN)

CAMBRIDGE, Md. -- A heated war of words was exchanged between veterans facing homelessness and the federal department tasked with looking out for them during a conference in Cambridge Saturday morning.

A number of Eastern Shore veterans who were once homeless but are now back on their feet are upset because in two months, they'll likely be homeless again.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recently announced they will no longer support the Veterans Support Center of America in Quantico that helps homeless veterans find transitional and permanent housing.

Leaders of the Quantico-based veterans support center are scrambling for help, though they may have received a lifeline at the conference from Maryland Congressman Andy Harris.

Harris, a navy veteran, had said in a Veterans Connect Conference invitation letter addressed to the center's general manager and co-founder, Jerry Black, that he's committed to the well-being of servicemen and women.

Harris hosted the Veterans Connections Conference at the American Legion post in Cambridge Saturday where he pledged his support to do what he can to help the center.

"My focus is on making sure my fellow veterans have access to the services they need. I will work to ensure that the changes the VA is making will make things better, not worse, for veterans on the Shore," said Congressman Harris in a statement. 

Leaders from the VSCOA met with officials from the VA at the conference, demanding answers as to why the department won't extend a contract that funds the center's housing and support programs.

Veterans who've benefited from the services VSCOA offers like Brian Farkas expressed his concerns to a VA spokesperson at the conference.

"I'm getting somewhere where I'm at and now you're going to yank it out from underneath me," said Farkas, "and I'm going to have to start all over again in some other place you put me."

Black says they've called on Congressman Harris to use his seat on the House Appropriations Committee to try getting the contract extended.

The committee, one of the most powerful on the hill, is responsible for how and how much money should be spent by the government.

VA spokesperson at the conference, Christopher Buser, explained why a contract extension can't be awarded to the veterans center.

"The way contracting works is that we have to put that bid out for competitive contracting. So we can't just renegotiate in the middle of the term," said Buser.

So the VA will let the VSCOA's contract expire and then open the bid process.

But between the Sept. 29 expiration date and whenever a new contract is finalized, that could take six months to a year or more. Time that Eastern Shore veterans will likely spend homeless, even though the VA says they'll make sure all affected vets have homes.

"If we haven't found permanent housing, we will continue to provide them transitional services. No one's going to be kicked out onto the street. We would never allow that to happen," said Buser. 

But some veterans don't see the VA's logic.

Black's son Jason had tough questions for the VA representative.

"Why would you have to transition them when they're already in a home? All you have to do is extend the contract. That's pretty much common sense right there," said Jason Black.

Political help isn't the only avenue the VSCOA is exploring to save the center.

They're also raising money on a GoFundMe.com page to continue to keep veterans off the street and on their feet.

If you would like to make a donation, you can visit the Go Fund Me page and Facebook page for the center. 

Correction: August 4, 2015

A version of this article regarding a letter Congressman Andy Harris sent to the Veterans Support Centers of America's general manager and co-founder  was a June 30 invitation letter requesting the VSCOA's presence at the Veterans Connect Conference in Cambridge, Md. on August 1. The letter was not referring to the VSCOA's contract issue with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Congressman Harris provided a statement in response to the VSCOA's situation on August 4.

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