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Just 15 weeks in, KC's tiny-house veterans village is changing lives

By RICK MONTGOMERY | The Kansas City Star | Published: May 11, 2018

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (Tribune News Service) — As rain slashed sideways and tornado sirens blared, Army veteran Larry Johnson worried recently that his new tiny house, just 240 square feet, might fly away.

When he stepped out into the next morning's calm, all was fine in the upstart Veterans Community Project in south Kansas City.

One of his 12 neighbors in the community, which provides transitional shelter and other aid to homeless veterans, shouted out to Johnson: "Hey, you still on the ground!"

Grounding is what the veterans village is all about.

It's been about 15 weeks since the first group of vets moved into the village's 13 houses. The privately funded experiment conceived by local veterans has captured the world's attention, garnering coverage from CNN and Time.

Though they were strangers before they moved in, the residents' military camaraderie is apparent right away: Lots of cussing, rising early, attending classes. Already, a resident known as "the Mayor" has cooked meals for others.

There's a shared dedication to completing a mission even for those who've been out of uniform for 40 years. But nobody says this mission is anywhere close to being accomplished.

"The housing is just putting a Band-Aid over an infected wound," said Josh Henges, the project's clinical director. "The thing that is deep inside causing the infection is still there, and that's what we have to get to."

Commitment required

From its infancy, both the residents and program officials know that the village is about more than providing shelter from a storm. Some are leaving broken marriages; some struggle with drug dependency or mental health issues.

The program requires that residents, who pay nothing to live there, attend strictly scheduled courses on job training, drug rehabilitation, psych counseling or other programs tailored to help each move on to places of their own. Residents who follow the rules can stay for six months to a year.

The residents are transitioned out only after they've secured steady income, licked any addictions and have lined up permanent shelter.

"There's very little room for error. They make one slip and it starts their descent all over again," said Henges. "And we've got to learn from our mistakes. We're just starting out. We have to change on the fly."

Already, at least one resident refused to take part in the mandatory case management sit-downs.

"Broke my heart," said Henges. "She's a sweet person, quiet. ... But she flat-out would not engage."

So 11 weeks after moving in, she was evicted.

Organizers also quickly adopted one rule change: No liquor in the units — not even for those who don't have a drinking problem.

The program had imposed the ban only on residents with alcohol issues until it became clear, of course, that veterans will share with their buddies.

"This program right now is a puppy crawling. Everyone's learning as they go," resident Johnson said.

"But it's a good program. I'd like to be a part of it in the future, telling my story and helping out here" even after the veteran, a muscular 61, moves to permanent housing.

Meet the residents

Marine vet Kyle Hanssen, 34, just moved in.

He brought his Bible, several other books and his clothing. The VCP and its donors supplied most everything else: bedding, plates, detergent, utensils, rolled-up towels in the bathroom drawer, even a scented candle.

"I started crying when I opened up this drawer," said Hanssen, standing at the bathroom sink. "There were my four toothbrushes."

Having been through combat in Iraq, in 2008 "I came back angry at the world," he said.

He enrolled in peace studies at Park University, married and had two children.

But combat left emotional scars familiar in the veterans village: Hanssen, like some of his neighbors, never chose homelessness; his marriage fell apart and Hanssen was sent packing.

A week into staying at the City Union Mission, he learned from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that VCP provided free bus passes at their offices at 89th Street and Troost Avenue, where the village is located. When he showed up, VCP staffers — only about a dozen paid — and many volunteers banded to put him in a tiny house.

The time between identifying a residential candidate and offering shelter took a bit longer than the 72 hours that VCP strives to place veterans into emergency housing. But now there, Hanssen will take therapy and financial-management courses and use the office's computers to hunt for work.

As for the living space, "I haven't felt this comfortable in years," he said. "This is a mansion compared to a Marine barracks you're sharing with someone else."

Two tiny houses over, Marvin Gregory this day is planning a workout at the YMCA a few miles north (membership provided by VCP donors). The 50-year-old ranks fitness high on his list of goals toward gaining stability.

Gregory has been a resident since the neighborhood opened in February and is making quick strides to transitioning out, perhaps this summer. He just landed work with a railroad company.

Gregory was couch-surfing before learning of VCP. He couldn't qualify for conventional housing aid for veterans as he never saw combat with the Army National Guard, and a stint with the Coast Guard was cut short after he suffered a violent allergic reaction to a bee sting.

Part of VCP's purpose is to assist veterans unable to clear the red tape of government-funded programs. That may mean those such as Gregory, who served honorably as a guardsman but not long enough in active duty, or veterans dishonorably discharged.

"So many are falling into gray areas of qualification" for federal help, said VCP's outreach coordinator Vincent Morales, who works in an Army-green mobile office at the village. "Here, if you've ever taken the oath of enlistment, you qualify. You're good to go."

So here's Gregory in a 240-square-foot house where five people can sleep — important for weekends when his three children can visit. They'll fill the three-stacked bunk beds in a corner adjacent the bathroom.

Awaiting the kids on the beds are stuffed animals, a football and other playthings donated by VCP.

"First day here all I had to do is arrive in my clothes," Gregory said.

Just outside Gregory's front door, a plaque planted in the grass commemorates the veteran whose family paid for the construction of the house. "In memory of Robin E. (Bob) Lightfoot III, U.S. Army Veteran," the sign reads.

"I met his family. Real nice people," Gregory said.

Across the road lives "the Mayor," ex-Navy Brian Schmidt, 57.

On Super Bowl weekend he prepared a 20-pound roast for the village. Jocular though a bit scraggly beneath a Chiefs cap, Schmidt still visits the homeless camps where he once lived and offers his neighbors tips on turning things around.

"Because I'd been on the streets for 30 years, I've got connections," he said. "That life I wouldn't want to wish on anyone."

On a window perches his cat Simba, known around the neighborhood as "the Sheriff." (Unlike many homeless shelters, VCP allows pets.)

"He keeps me from being paranoid, because those ears of his will perk right up if there's something not quite right," said Schmidt. "It drops my anxiety."

'This is great'

At the entrance to the village stand road barriers and a sign: "We appreciate your support, however we ask that you respect the privacy of the residents."

The global news coverage and outpouring of financial support, though thrilling to VCP organizers, have a downside: The neighborhood has been drawing sightseers. There isn't much space in the private cul-de-sac for residents who own cars, much less for the gawkers who drive through.

"These guys are feeling like they're in kind of a fishbowl as it is," said Marine veteran and lawyer Bryan Meyer, the project's chief legal adviser. Now visitors are asked to first check in with the office.

On this morning after the storm, volunteers Charles French and Stan Fellwock, both retired, arrived as they usually do to pick up debris, fix household needs and tend to the grounds.

By year's end, project directors hope work will have started on three dozen more tiny shelters in the same lot — and perhaps a community center that will have a fellowship kitchen, barber shop, medical and dental clinics, a veterinarian and dog-wash room.

Some question whether or not local veterans will need all of those units. In November, leaders of Wyandotte and Jackson counties cheered the efforts of dozens of agencies that have placed more than 660 homeless veterans in permanent housing around the metro since January 2015.

As such, the greater Kansas City area became the 56th community in the U.S. to be certified by the federal Interagency Council on Homelessness for reducing the shelter needs of veterans to so-called "functional zero," suggesting there already are enough housing and services for any homeless veteran.

That determination — deemed absurd by VCP founders — relies upon a complex formula of monthly housing averages to show that the numbers of veterans placed in permanent shelter exceed those known to be homeless.

Builders of the Veterans Village ask: Who really knows how many are living out of cars, moving in with friends, or who've returned from recent conflicts facing uncertain futures?

Donors, too, seem undeterred to keep the help coming.

Near the end of this day, H&R Block co-founder Henry W. Bloch paid a visit.

Leaning on a cane, the 95-year-old Bloch toured one of the tiny houses under construction. Son Bob Bloch said his philanthropic father was thinking of underwriting a house, but the interest extends beyond charity: Henry Bloch served 38 missions over Europe as an Army navigator in World War II.

"This is great," he said after stepping around a unit.

That shared military experience is something the residents appreciate.

Hanssen, the Marine, noted: "I've never received help from someone who knows what it's like. Until now."

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