Homeless veterans in Kansas City get a place to hang their hats

By TIM ENGLE | The Kansas City Star | Published: August 31, 2014

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Grant Garrison and George Turner are a generation apart and fought in different wars, but they recently found themselves in about the same situation.

If Garrison, 29, couldn't find someone with an available couch, he'd sleep in his car. Preferably at a truck stop, he adds, where the cops won't mess with you too much.

Turner, 66, following disagreements with family members, was "looking at living out of my pickup."

Saturday afternoon, the two new friends -- a veteran of Afghanistan and a veteran of Vietnam -- were shooting the breeze on the driveway of a place they can call home. At least for a little while.

Heroes Home Gate, on East 35th Street just a stone's throw from U.S. 71, is a new emergency shelter for homeless veterans. But don't let "shelter" give you the wrong idea. It's a home, and it feels that way.

Guys who'll live there helped paint the handsome old three-story house in Kansas City's Ivanhoe neighborhood. Two sofas, some easy chairs and gleaming hardwood floors make for an inviting living room.

Above one window, six letters: Heroes.

This home replaces a rental house several blocks away. A faith-based organization called Footprints Inc. has operated Heroes Home Gate since 2011; the Department of Veterans Affairs provides funding.

Footprints bought the house for $45,000 last November from Kansas City Rescue Mission. But VA officials, after inspecting the house, wouldn't sign off unless Footprints made about $20,000 in improvements.

"So basically it's taken us six months to raise the money and do the work," said Michael Liimatta, president of the Footprints board.

A big chunk of that work was improving handicap accessibility, like a wheelchair ramp in the back.

But now the home is move-in ready.

On Saturday, Director Joel Bailey proudly offered tours. One feature everyone's excited about: the central heat and air. With any luck, no one will have to put plastic over the windows this winter.

The home has five bedrooms and two bathrooms, with plans for a third in the basement. As many as 11 veterans (men only) can live here at one time, typically for no longer than 90 days.

The VA has about 150 emergency shelter beds for veterans around the Kansas City area.

But veterans needing a place to stay can't simply turn up at the front door of Heroes Home Gate. They have to be referred by the VA, and once in the home they take advantage of services offered by the VA, including medical care and counseling.

The 10 men currently in the program range in age from 25 to 77.

The house is staffed around the clock. One of those staff members is Cliff Hall, an Army veteran who's been cooking since he was 12.

Although the new house's kitchen isn't exactly spacious, it's bigger than the other kitchen. And the tile floor here is an improvement over beat-up linoleum, Hall said.

Several "alumni" stopped by Saturday. Terry Rowe, 65, did two tours of Vietnam. He went in at 17 on what was known as the "kiddie cruise" -- join before the age of 18 and get out by 21.

But he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and battled cocaine addiction for more than 30 years, he said. After he and his wife separated, the VA sent him to Heroes Home Gate and later into a residential addiction recovery program.

These days, he has his own apartment.

"If you come in this house and you're working toward something, (Bailey is) going to help you every way he can," Rowe said.

"I had a roof over my head, food to eat, a clean bed to sleep in -- I didn't have any worries. All that was taken care of so I could focus on recovery."

Bailey said veterans can become homeless for many reasons. It could be drug or alcohol abuse, but "relationship breakups" -- with a significant other or children -- can be to blame, too.

And not every veteran who's homeless is broke, Bailey said. Some just don't know how to manage money, so they'll get help with that.

Garrison, the young Marine Corps veteran, found civilian life tougher than military life: "It's pay your bills, pay taxes, try to keep up with people on social media."

He got out of the service in June 2013. Job opportunities in other cities fell through. He has family in this area, but they haven't helped like he wished they could.

He moved into the Heroes Home Gate house in mid-July. Eventually he'd like to take advantage of the GI Bill and go to college.

But his immediate priorities are to get his car legal and get a job. And, of course, find a place of his own.

Other homeless shelters "make you feel like you're a criminal," Garrison said. "Not here."


(c)2014 The Kansas City Star. Distributed by MCT Information Services


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