Since the Navy shuttered its base in North Charleston, more than 2,000 homeless veterans have lived there, rent-free, as they battled drug and alcohol addiction and tried to repair their lives.

They resided in the "Veterans Villas," a series of neat brick ranch homes along Manley Avenue first built for naval officers and their families.

Now that this property is owned by S.C. Public Railways, the few dozen veterans there are preparing to move.

The Chesapeake Health Education Program, which has run the villas since 1998, originally got access to the properties through the McKinney Act -- a federal law that addressed homelessness in part by giving agencies that serve the homeless free access to surplus federal property.

That act no longer applies now that the base property has changed hands.

The Noisette Co. had allowed Chesapeake to continue to occupy the homes at no cost -- the nonprofit pays insurance and maintenance costs -- but when the Public Railways acquired the property last year after Noisette's foreclosure, things began to change.

Melissa Kelly, director of the nonprofit program, said the state wanted Chesapeake to sign a lease that would have cost several thousand dollars.

Instead, the nonprofit decided to consolidate its Lowcountry operations at its site off Ashley Phosphate Road.

"We're not vengeful. We're certainly disappointed," she said, adding that she only dealt with the state agency through its attorney. "We could fight it and chain ourselves to the front door and get ugly about it but we decided to remain peaceful."

S.C. Public Railways' records showed the program had not had a lease since 2005, and it tried to reach a new lease with a dollar amount that would work for both parties, director Jeff McWhorter said.

The agency was willing to provide six months rent-free before escalating the monthly payments, but it never heard back, he added.

Jamie Sullivan, a 31-year-old veteran who served in Korea and Germany, doesn't want to move but soon will have to.

Sullivan had lived in Hampton County until his psychiatrist recommended Chesapeake's program. "She said this would be a good opportunity because there's a lot of recovery up here," he said. "I'm sad we're moving but that's the way things go."

For the veterans, who stay in the program about four months on average, the move will mean a longer commute to their treatment at the Veterans Administration health center in downtown Charleston.

Their new neighborhood also won't have the same quietude -- or the quality and quantity of nearby parks or the chance to fish in the nearby creek. A regular narcotics support group meeting, known as "Staying Alive," also will relocate.

Kelly said the move is most unsettling to some older veterans who have grown familiar with the former base.

"Some are excited because it's change, and it's exciting," she said. "Some don't like it because it's change. They like it out there."

Chesapeake also is looking for financial and other support as it finishes interior refurbishing of its new properties to federal standards.

"With no grants available, we're really struggling," she said. "The show must go on. We want to keep housing these guys and doing the service, returning the favor, really."