Tara Ingram says she and her mother spent thousands of dollars installing sprinklers and making other improvements to ensure their house would qualify for a Veterans Affairs contract to shelter homeless veterans.
But two weeks after notifying Ingram that she had won the contract, the VA backed out.
“They had us to spend all this money, and then they renege at the very end,” Ingram said. “They just led us on, one thing after another.”
She’s not alone. Sheryl Lyons, whose business operates two other local group homes, says the VA strung her along with the promise of a contract in Fayetteville. The deal, she says, was canceled in a phone call after she had already spent about $20,000 to make VA-required improvements.
The women say the VA encouraged them to have all their renovations completed in time for a VA inspector to sign off on them.
In a written response to the Observer’s questions about Ingram’s contract, the VA’s regional contracting office said the government is not allowed to tell potential contractors what work needs to be done to ensure the bidding process remains fair.
But Ingram and Lyons say that’s not what happened, and the VA’s months-long wrangling over sprinklers at Jubilee House also suggests the VA may have violated its own policies.
The VA pays shelter operators for every bed they provide to homeless veterans, and people who have the contracts say they depend on the money for the survival of their programs. But to qualify for contracts, shelters must meet federal safety standards.
Ingram and her mother, Gloria Daniels, thought the contract was a sure thing as they racked up an estimated $40,000 in bills for renovations to the house they leased in the Arran Lakes neighborhood in 2010. They also underwent VA background checks, which the VA confirmed are required only of people who are awarded a contract.
Ingram, a retired soldier, initially applied for a contract to shelter five veterans. A VA representative asked if they could make room for seven more, so Ingram and Daniels bought beds and other furniture.
On Oct. 12, 2010, Ingram’s hopes were confirmed by a congratulatory email from VA contract specialist Kathryn Avent-Ortega. The email says that Ingram has been awarded the contract and that Ortega will soon mail her an acceptance letter and arrange for a “post award” meeting.
Ingram participated in a conference call with Ortega and Fayetteville VA representatives on Oct. 21. The VA’s response to the Observer acknowledges that the contract was awarded but says issues were raised during the phone call that were never addressed. An Ortega email after the call, however, says “all parties’ objectives and concerns were met and agreed upon.”
Ingram was given two days to respond to the new questions.
Ortega on Oct. 28 sent another email that said the Fayetteville VA “has decided to cancel this contract for convenience to the government.”
The email says the VA would be accepting bids for a new contract with more requirements than Ingram’s previous deal and encourages her to apply for it.
Ingram and Daniels, who had dipped into her retirement savings, said they could not afford to keep jumping through hoops for the VA. They say the VA wanted them to apply for a new contract offering more services for less than it would have cost to operate the shelter.
A VA regional spokesman said Friday that the VA would continue to look into the issues after being told of the inconsistencies in the VA’s answers.
“It is possible that there was a gap in the communications behind this contracting effort, but it is hard to piece together what actually occurred nearly two years ago,” Bruce Sprecher said. “VA needs community support to ensure these programs are successful, and anything we can do to better the process will be in the best interest of the veterans we serve.”
Lyons, whose business operates two other homes for the mentally ill and mentally disabled, had renovated two houses to provide 14 beds for homeless veterans. Lyons planned to provide 24-hour supervision, food, transportation to medical appointments and other services for her tenants as part of her $711,000 contract proposal.
She said Ortega, the same contract specialist who worked with Ingram, repeatedly made her believe last summer that the contract was hers. But near the end of July, Lyons said, Ortega called and said, “We’re not doing it anymore.” Lyons said Ortega promised to send a written explanation, but she hasn’t received one a year later.
Lyons said she had to pay her employees late for a few months because she had put so much money into the homes.
“It was wrong, the way they did us,” said Daniels, who owns a day care center in Spring Lake. “They didn’t care about us.”
The VA said it told Ingram she could be reimbursed for any expenses she made in the small window between when the contract was officially awarded and when it was canceled.
Ingram said she has kept her receipts but was never told about reimbursements. She estimates that in the final push to prepare the house for the veterans’ arrival, she spent about $15,000 on the sprinklers, labor, paint and a van for taking veterans to medical appointments.
Ingram and Daniels said they hired a lawyer to try to recoup the money they spent but could not afford to go forward with a costly lawsuit.
Lyons said she doesn’t want her money back. She wants the VA to give her a chance to work together to help with an important cause.
“I have 14 beds, and I see homeless veterans walking the streets,” Lyons said. “It breaks my heart not to be able to put someone in them because I can’t afford to.”
Staff writer John Ramsey can be reached at [email protected] or 486-3574.