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200 veterans could be displaced if California home is closed by budget woes

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks to members of the media at Long Beach Community College on Feb. 19, 2019, in Long Beach, Calif. (Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

A veterans home in Barstow may close, forcing about 200 veterans to move, as part of the state’s effort to address a massive budget shortfall that resulted from the novel coronavirus crisis.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s revised budget proposes to initiate the closure of the Barstow Veterans Home over the next two years, which could save about $400,000 next fiscal year and $14 million annually over the long term.

More than two months of business closures and restrictions to slow the spread of the coronavirus has resulted in a $54 billion state budget deficit. To help fill that gap, Newsom has proposed numerous cuts and is relying on money from the feds.

The Barstow home is on a list of $14 billion in trigger cuts that would be revisited if the federal government doesn’t pass an aid package to help states and local governments.

“I am outraged the state would consider letting the burden of balancing the budget fall on the neediest of our population, particularly veterans, who have sacrificed so much for the country and to whom we owe such a great debt,” said Assemblyman Jay Obernolte, who is fighting the closure.

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Officials at the home deferred comment to the state Department of Veterans Affairs.

The veterans home opened in 1996 and has 220 beds. It offers independent living, intermediate care and skilled nursing care. Primary medical care is provided to independent residents on-site, while acute care is available at the Jerry L. Pettis Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Loma Linda or at the Barstow Community Hospital, according to the home’s website.

The home was originally opened because of its unique proximity to multiple military installations in the High Desert, which has one of the highest concentrations of veterans in the state, according to Obernolte.

However, the state says the home doesn’t meet its criteria for an “ideal veterans home” because the area doesn’t have a large veteran population, routinely has critical vacancies and is 90 minutes away from the nearest VA medical center, among other issues, according to a May 14 letter to residents and employees from the state Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Vito Imbasciani.

“I know this is alarming for the staff, the veterans and their families who call Barstow Home,” Imbasciani wrote. “In my time at CalVet, this is one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make and one of the most difficult letters I’ve ever had to write. You have my solemn promise that we will work with everyone; each staff member, each resident, every family to make sure this transition is as smooth as possible.”

There will be no dramatic changes right away and the department will work with residents over the next two years to move them into one of seven other homes for veterans, according to Imbasciani’s letter.

The nearest veterans home is nearly 100 miles away in Lancaster. The West Los Angeles home is 134 miles away from Barstow.

A group held a rolling rally on Memorial Day, May 25, to bring awareness to the proposed closure. More than 1,000 motorcycles and 1,500 cars participated in the rally, said David Jensen, a Navy veteran who started the group, “Save Barstow Veterans Home.”

As of Tuesday morning, nearly 19,000 had signed an online petition urging Newsom, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and President Donald Trump to keep the home open. The goal is 25,000 signatures.

“Our whole community is just up in arms over this because we all have an attachment to veterans,” said Jensen, of Daggett. “We’re a military town. There are two military facilities right next to our town and other military facilities pretty close to us. It’s necessary for these military folks. When they retire they retire here.”

The effort has grabbed the attention of other local, state and federal lawmakers, including Supervisors Dawn Rowe and Curt Hagman, and Rep. Paul Cook, R-Apple Valley, who have sent letters to the state opposing the closure.

Chris Bubser, a Democrat running against Obernolte in November for the 8th Congressional District seat, also opposes the closure.

“Governor Newsom, closure of the #Barstow Veterans Home is not acceptable,” Bubser said in a tweet. “Especially in these challenging times, we cannot balance the #California budget by cutting vital services for #veterans in an already under-served part of the state.”

Obernolte, who sits on three state legislative budget committees, said the governor is not taking into account the $3 million-plus the state gets from the federal government to house veterans in Barstow. Moreover, the governor does not write the budget, he said.

The Legislature will continue hammering out the budget details over the next four weeks before sending it to Newsom for his signature. Last week, a budget subcommittee rejected the proposal to close the home, but the fight will continue until the proposal dies, Obernolte announced via Twitter.

“This veterans home represents our commitment as a society to the veterans who have served our country,” Obernolte said. “These veterans are not just an item in the budget. They represent real people with real families and real lives. They’re a segment of our population we have an obligation to protect.”

Jensen said he hopes their efforts will get Newsom’s attention. He also hopes Newsom will announce that no CalVets homes will be closed nor will any funding be used to help balance the budget.

“I know it’s tough times,” Jensen said. “It’s tough times for everybody. The state really has to look elsewhere.”

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© 2020 the San Bernardino County Sun