Some neighbors worry about safety of veterans living in boarding house

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 3, 2012

By Emily Ford
SALISBURY — The city of Salisbury will let 13 men live in the veterans boarding house on Park Avenue, more than twice as many as typically allowed in the historic district.
The Victorian house at 432 Park Ave., painted red, white and blue and owned by Jim Tonseth, has been grandfathered in under the 1977 fire code, said Chris Branham, the city’s Code Services Division manager.
The structure has operated as a boarding house since 1977. Tonseth bought it in 1986.
The city inspected the facility March 23 after neighbors complained the veterans were not safe and Tonseth was running a tire recycling business out of the house.
“It appears that (Tonseth’s) only concern is to squeeze as much profit as humanly possible from this property without regard for its impact on the neighborhood or the dignity and welfare of the veterans,” Garth Birdsey, who lived across the street for several years, wrote to the city.
Birdsey and his wife are Navy veterans and “have nothing but respect for these men,” he wrote to Branham. Birdsey called the condition of the house “shameful.”
Safety concerns
C.J. Peters, the Neighborhood Watch captain who lives nearby, said he worries for the veterans’ safety.
“Is the city of Salisbury really ready to accept the liability if something happens to one of our brave veterans in that rundown, dilapidated home?” Peters wrote.
But Branham said Tonseth holds monthly fire drills and has improved the house, which has an internal fire alarm system. He appears to take good care of the men living in the house, Branham said.
“The condition of the interior of the house is in very good condition, not including the third floor, which will not be used moving forward as a living area due to not being permitted with Rowan County,” Branham said.
Tonseth can no longer house boarders in the attic space he renovated without permits, Branham said.
No longer allowed
Group homes are not allowed in city’s local historic districts, and no more than six unrelated people can live in the same house. But for years, the city allowed Tonseth’s home to have eight occupants, Branham said.
When recent complaints from Birdsey and Peters spurred additional research, Branham said he found city records indicating the dwelling has been in continuous use as a boarding house since 1977.
That means Branham applies the fire code from that year, which allows one occupant per 200 square feet. Based on the 2,645 square feet of usable space on the first and second floor, Tonseth can house 13 occupants.
Tonseth said he had 16 occupants when neighbors lodged their complaints and had to ask three homeless veterans to leave. He said he doesn’t know where the men went.
“That’s who suffers, the three homeless veterans we had to kick out of the house,” Tonseth said. “I feel bad about it, but there’s not a whole lot I can do.”
Birdsey said before he filed the complaint, he confirmed with the Salisbury VA that other beds were available in the Community Residential Care program to ease his mind.
Tonseth’s house has been part of the program since 1986, although the VA will no longer refer CRC veterans to Tonseth after a recent inspection identified electrical issues Tonseth said he refuses to change.
VA inspection
Although Tonseth has passed annual VA inspections since he was originally approved, a recent routine inspection listed fire and safety recommendations, said Carol Waters, public information officer for the Salisbury VA.
Waters said details are only available through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The Post has filed Freedom of Information Act requests for information about the inspection, any veterans forced to leave the boarding house, Tonseth’s sliding scale for room and board and other information. The requests are pending.
Tonseth said the inspector, who is new, said the house needs new breakers and outlets, which Tonseth said would cost between $20,000 and $30,000 and require rewiring the house.
He said he will not make the changes.
“This house has been inspected 26 times prior to this inspection, and we have always passed,” he said.
Three of Tonseth’s 13 boarders were referred from the Community Residential Care program. The VA is offering those veterans other “foster home” living arrangements, Waters said. But if the veteran chooses, he can sign a waiver indicating he was informed of the inspection results and elected to remain in the home, she said.
If Tonseth does not make the improvements, the house will no longer be affiliated with the Community Residential Care, Waters said.
No big deal, Tonseth said. The VA will continue to refer other veterans to his house, he said.
Tonseth depends on VA referrals to keep the house full.
“Our affiliation with CRC is minimal,” he said. “The majority of people in the house are not in any particular VA program at all.”
Veterans’ voices
Veterans living in the house defended Tonseth, saying he takes excellent care of them and works as their advocate.
“There is a lot of lip service about helping veterans,” said Jim Stanton, 60, who has lived in the house for a month. “Jim Tonseth doesn’t talk, he acts.”
Stanton suffers from depression, anxiety and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and has had a hip replacement. He said his disability payments are tangled up in red tape, leaving him with no income.
He said he lived in a motel in Indian Trail until he ran out of money. Then Tonseth took him in for free.
“If it weren’t for Jim, I would be on the street or in a shelter,” Stanton said.
Tonseth charges room and board based on veterans’ income, which is usually a monthly disability check. He would not reveal his sliding scale but said he makes sure the men have spending money left over.
Darrell Goode, 51, came to the Salisbury VA from another veterans hospital in Arizona for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder he developed after serving in Operation Desert Storm.
He had been in the Salisbury VA’s psychiatric unit for several days when a social worker identified him as a good candidate for Tonseth’s boarding house.
“I’ve never seen a place like this before,” Goode said. “If you are a vet, you are welcome, income or not.”
Turning the corner
Tonseth, who is not a veteran but has a son at West Point, said he has spent $80,000 in the past three years improving the exterior and interior of the house. He acknowledged the house had “deferred maintenance.”
After losing $40,000 on the house during the first five years, Tonseth said the facility is now turning a small profit. He said he turned the corner when the VA increased the number of referrals to the house and loosened control over how much he could charge for room and board.
He said he works 14 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week, and earns less than minimum wage. He employs a live-in housekeeper who cooks most of the meals.
Veterans at the house said Tonseth does everything for them from laundry to buying cigarettes to taking them to appointments.
Gene Kindle, 51, who has lived in the house for a year and half, said Tonseth drives him to Lexington so he can see his daughter.
“We do everything,” Tonseth said. “They become a member of the family. They become our brothers in arms.”
Kindle said he receives $1,100 a month in disability and pays Tonseth $750 for room and board, as well as $234 in child support.
Men have lived in the house from 30 days to 20 years, Tonseth said. Two died there, said Tonseth, who administered CPR.
“That changes you forever,” he said.
New direction
Tonseth said he ran a business at the house so the veterans who wanted to could work. They recycled used NASCAR tires and turned them into souvenirs.
He has removed his business from the home and has until the end of May to weatherproof a turret on the house, which also violated city code, Branham said.
Tonseth has recycled tires for years at a warehouse and said he plans to find a place where the veterans can participate again. He said if his neighbors had not complained, he could have housed more veterans and employed many of them, as well.
“I apologize for helping too many people,” he said.
Tonseth said he originally planned to house 50 veterans on a farm in Rowan County. But a recent visit to a renovated 125-room motel in Asheville that houses 240 veterans has inspired him, Tonseth said.
Called the Veterans Restoration Quarters, the facility run by Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry provides meals, case management, counseling, a computer lab, gym, chapel, transportation and more.
Tonseth said he feels called to partner with some agency in Salisbury to start a similar ministry. He said attention drawn by recent complaints will help spread the word about his goals.
“I’m not in control anymore,” Tonseth said. “I’m just a tool being used by God almighty.”
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.