Building 'tiny houses' for homeless veterans in Kansas City
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Across the United States, thousands of veterans, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other issues, end up on the streets after they finish their service. Three veterans in Kansas City who work with this homeless population felt like traditional services weren’t working for them. So they decided to build a village of tiny houses to offer homeless vets a new start. They inaugurated the first “tiny house” last month.
The US Department of Veterans Affairs does provide support to veterans facing homelessness, but, as our Observers found, the system is often complicated to navigate and vulnerable people often fall through the cracks.
“We needed a place that says ‘yes’ first, no questions asked”Chris Stout served in the US Army from 2001 to 2007. He was injured while serving in Afghanistan and medically retired. Now, he is the president of the Veterans Community Project, which he co-founded with fellow veterans Mark Solomon, an Iraq war vet who still serves in the Navy Reserves, and Kevin Jamison, who spent 20 years serving with the Marines.
Most of these veterans are homeless because they are suffering from mental health issues or substance abuse. It’s not a question of money because a lot of these guys get monthly pensions from the government. Some are homeless because of their inability to integrate.
Their stories are diverse, but all of them are heartbreaking. I worked with a 27-year-old guy who had four deployments to Iraq. The first person he killed there was an 8-year-old boy. He was suffering from severe, untreated PTSD and ended up living in a homeless camp in the woods.
“A lot of organisations have all these different requirements for veterans to qualify”
Another guy I worked with is a 24-year-old veteran and a Purple Heart recipient [Editor’s note: A US military decoration awarded to those wounded or killed will serving]. He was working on his Master’s Degree when his mom, dad and wife were all killed in a car accident. He lost everyone and, after that, he just couldn’t put his life back together.
Both my co-founder Kevin and I were already working with community organisations providing support to veterans facing homelessness in Kansas City. But a lot of organisations have all these different requirements for veterans to qualify. It might depend on how long you served or if you deployed or not. Sometimes, you have to have been living in a shelter to qualify.
With all these hurdles, it could take days or months to get people housed. So I ended up paying for a bunch of hotel rooms out of pocket, especially for veterans who ended up homeless with their families. We realised that we needed to create a place that says “yes” first. If you are a veteran, we’ll take you in, no questions asked. We just want to keep you off the streets. It’ll be a transitional facility with the goal of getting everyone permanently housed.
“This gives them their own, secure space”
We chose to build tiny houses from a cost standpoint. We can keep a man clothed, fed, and housed in one of the 240-square-feet spaces [22 square metres] for about $10,000 a year. We were able to buy the empty lot for 500 dollars.
This shows the first tiny house shortly after it was purchased. (All photos from Veterans Community Project Facebook)
But the tiny house project also works because it gives veterans their own, secure space. The only option for a lot of homeless guys is to go into shelters, which are super social environments. Veterans with PTSD struggle to handle that.
In the houses, only one wall has windows so people don’t have to check all over [Many veterans feel the constant need to evaluate the safety of their surroundings].
This is a photo of the interior of the tiny house.
This is a photo of the interior of the tiny house.
“I think this will help the community”
We’ll have security and support staff on hand 24 hours a day. We are building a community centre and plan to offer a dentist, a barber, yoga and a mentorship programme, among other things.
The nuts and bolts of our project is to bring the community into care for our guys. Having other veterans around helps, but we’ve already started having open houses to bring our neighbours in. The neighbourhood is rough, you can’t get a pizza delivered here after dark. So I actually think this will help the community!
People gathered for the ribbon cutting ceremony on May 2, 2016.
US Representative Emmanuel Cleaver attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony on May 2 and he wants to set up other tiny house villages for veterans in rural communities. We hope to have all 52 houses built on the property by veterans day in November. But we are still raising money in order to employ a support staff (Click here to find out more about fundraising).
It’s difficult to get an accurate count of the number of homeless people in a city. In January 2015, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (UDHUD) estimated that about 47,725 veterans were homeless on a single night across the US. Fewer than 10 percent (4,338) were women.
In a November 2015 survey, UDHUD found that there were 366 chronically homeless individuals (not just veterans) in the greater Kansas City area and that 15% were unsheltered. This does not account for many other people facing different degrees of housing instability. On the other hand, Stout estimates there are thousands of homeless vets in Kansas City.