AUGUSTA — A proposal to help turn vacant former group homes on the campus of the state’s former mental hospital into housing for veterans won unanimous approval from a state legislative committee Wednesday.

The proposal also spurred a solution to the lack of group home spots for Riverview Psychiatric Center patients who are ready to move out of the hospital.

Court Master Daniel Wathen, who oversees a consent decree that settled a 1989 lawsuit filed by patients against the former Augusta Mental Health Institute, recently recommended the state reopen two of the four former group homes on the old institute campus. The grounds are adjacent to Riverview on Hospital Road. The consent decree holds the state to agreed-upon standards of care.

Wathen’s proposal would have made the group homes unavailable for veterans’ housing, and could have scuttled a bill sponsored by Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, that would authorize the state to sell the buildings to an organization for use as veterans’ housing.

However, Wathen on Wednesday unveiled a new plan he discussed last week with Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew and state Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health officials that he said could provide group home spots for patients leaving Riverview. He told the State and Local Government Committee that Riverview should no longer need the group homes.

“I’m pleased we won’t be standing in the way of Rep. Wilson and the folks interested in veterans’ housing because that is a great need, as well,” said Wathen, of Augusta, former chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. “Yes, I believe we remedied (the lack of group home placements for Riverview patients). It’s not perfect, but it’s probably as good as we’ll ever come to. The process of shedding a little light on it is what often solves these problems.”

Wilson’s proposed L.D. 1606 would direct the state Bureau of General Services to sell four former group homes to a nonprofit for use as veterans’ housing. It won a unanimous ought-to-pass vote from the State and Local Government Committee, though it still must be approved by the full Legislature and signed by Gov. Paul LePage.

“This is one of the best bills,” said committee member Rep. Jethro Pease, R-Morrill. “In the last couple of years, we’ve moved forward.

“I don’t know if we helped nudge DHHS a bit or not, but I think we moved this to a point we can all walk out of here tonight feeling like we did a good thing for a lot of constituencies.”

The buildings were previously slated for demolition.

Augusta-based nonprofit organization Bread of Life Ministries, which runs a 12-bed homeless veterans’ shelter in Augusta, has expressed interest in using the former group homes for veterans leaving the homeless shelter. Bread of Life Executive Director Dean LaChance said the shelter is full every night, and the group homes would provide affordable housing in a community setting with fellow veterans.

The bill authorizes, but does not require, the state Bureau of General Services to sell the group homes at 6 and 10 Arsenal Heights Drive and 7 and 11 Independence Drive, but restricts the sale to nonprofits for use as transitional housing for veterans. That restriction is expected to result in a lower market price for the property.

Wilson, himself a veteran, wasted no time trying to negotiate a price. After the vote, he approached Jennifer Smith, spokeswoman for the Department of Administrative and Financial Services, to ask if the department would consider selling the homes for $10,000. She said she could not commit to a price on the spot, and would review state policies for the sale.

Smith told the committee, however, if the bill is approved by the Legislature and signed by LePage, she would expect the transaction to be complete by fall.

Wilson said private funding will be needed to buy the property and renovate the buildings.

The group homes closed the summer of 2012 when the occupants were moved to group homes on Glenridge Drive and Green Street.

Wilson said demolishing the buildings was expected to cost the state about $100,000, a cost that would be avoided if the state gives them away.

Two of the buildings could be easily converted to veterans’ housing. They’re already equipped with conference rooms, private bedrooms, central kitchens and strong foundations, according to LaChance.

For Riverview’s forensic patients, Wathen said, state officials found 10 beds within the existing stock of group home housing for patients making the transition back into society. Forensic patients are people who have committed a violent or criminal act and have been hospitalized by the court order.

Wathen said most of the beds are in the Augusta area. He said the department will use a new procedure that could speed the process of determining when patients are ready to move out of secure group homes into less-secure supported apartments. Moving patients out faster will, in turn, free up spots for Riverview patients.

Wathen said DHHS also committed to developing six outpatient forensic patient beds through Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center in Bangor.

Keith Edwards can be contacted at 621-5647 or at:

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