San Diego neighbors oppose veterans treatment center

A Marine ceremony in 2011.
(Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times)

SAN DIEGO — A plan for a 40-bed treatment center for military veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan suffering frompost-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury has run into opposition from neighborhood groups and a nearby charter school.

Proponents say that the center will keep troubled veterans from slipping into homelessness. But school officials are worried about danger to students posed by veterans struggling with mental health issues.

The volatile issue is set to be discussed by the City Council on Tuesday, although it could be delayed for 30 days to allow compromise negotiations to continue.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has allocated $30 million for the Aspire Center project, starting with remodeling a former Thomas Jefferson School of Law building on San Diego Avenue in the Old Town neighborhood.

The Old Town Academy, a free charter school that opened in September 2011, is directly across the street in another building once owned by the law school, which has moved to another campus.

Without an Aspire Center in San Diego, many veterans would fail to retain their “welfare and dignity” and join the growing ranks of the homeless, said retired Marine Lt. Col. Jack Harkins, chairman of the United Veterans Council of San Diego County.

But Tom Donahue, the academy’s executive director and principal, said parents are worried that the veterans could pose a threat or at least a disruption to the students. The school could find itself on lockdown if there is a problem at the center, he said.

“We’re not anti-veteran,” said Donahue, noting that some of his students are from military families. “We just feel this is the wrong location.”

San Diego has more than 28,000 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, more than any area in the country, according to the VA. “The center will be a safe haven for veterans, concentrating on their process of recovery in preparation for a return to civilian life,” according to information forwarded by the agency to the City Council.

The center would provide treatment for veterans who do not need to be hospitalized but could benefit from rehabilitative services. The average stay would be 60 to 120 days, VA officials say.

The center would have a staff of 27 to provide occupational and vocational therapy, educational classes, mental health counseling, and substance abuse treatment. Of the 40 beds, six would be reserved for women.

The Mission Hills Town Council, which acts as an advisory group to the City Council on land-use issues, and the Old Town Chamber of Commerce also oppose the center.

The issue is politically tricky for the City Council, pitting two groups that council members say are a priority: military veterans and elementary school students. One council member, Sherri Lightner, is in a tight reelection campaign; another, Carl DeMaio, is in a runoff for mayor with Rep. Bob Filner, long a favorite with veterans’ groups.

Councilman Kevin Faulconer, who represents the Old Town area, is attempting to reach an eleventh-hour compromise between the Veterans Affairs Department and the school, according to a staff aide.

Proponents of the center worry that if the City Council turns down the conditional use permit, the VA will transfer the $30 million to a project somewhere else in the country. When a project slated for Miami encountered neighborhood opposition, the funding was transferred to a project in West Palm Beach, Fla.

On the other hand, Old Town Academy officials say nearly 200 parents signed a petition stating that they may withdraw their children from the K-8 school if the center opens. That could force the school to close because state funding is based on a per-student formula, school officials said.

“We’re a model, the kind of school that this country needs,” Donahue said. “And we were here first.”