Tiny house projects expand, giving homeless veterans independence and security

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Credit: Chris Haxel / American Homefront

Above: The Veterans Community Project’s first campus in Kansas City, Missouri features 49 mini-homes for homeless veterans. The organization hopes to have similar villages in eight cities by the end of 2022.

Six years after the Veterans Community Project began building tiny homes for homeless veterans in Kansas City, the idea is proving to be a huge success.

The association’s campus, with its neat rows of small houses, looks like a miniature version of the suburbs. And there are plans for expansion – both in Kansas City and across the country.

For residents like Christopher Perry, the appeal of independent living plays a big role in the success of the organization.

Perry joined the Marine Corps at the age of 17. He has been deployed to Iraq and has been promoted several times. But he struggled with drug addiction and what was later diagnosed as PTSD.

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He was demoted, and after about eight years Perry was kicked out of the military on a non-honorable dump – also known as a bad paper dump.

He described the next decade of his life in four succinct words: “prison, drugs, homeless, alcohol”.

Traditional homeless shelters were an option, but Perry said he didn’t like living with so many strangers. About a year ago, he found the Veterans Community Project and moved into his own 240 square foot home.

Now, instead of roommates, he has neighbors.

“When you are homeless, you learn to be alone,” he said. “It’s the safest way to do it… but here it’s different. “

He said the neighbors share leftovers or shop for groceries together. They can chat away from home without invading their personal space.

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When residents move into the village, their homes are fully stocked with groceries and cutlery. Bedding and towels are new. Everything belongs to the resident, who can keep it even after leaving for permanent accommodation.

“It’s like the best thing ever,” Perry said. “If you go to a homeless shelter, you sleep on stuff, you don’t know who had what, or if it was even washed or how many people slept on it before you got there. “

Wes Williams, director of veterans services at VCP, said the idea is to give residents a sense of belonging and dignity. But as a veteran himself, Williams knows that many residents have suffered trauma. As he took a tour of a house, he noted that it was designed from scratch for safety’s sake.

“There is an entrance and an exit,” he said. “The bed is here in the back corner, and it’s designed so that if they’re lying here in their bed, (the residents) don’t have to worry about someone sneaking up behind them.”

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But there is more to VCP’s development than just tiny houses. There is a community building and outreach center, where residents can connect with veterans service providers as they work to find stable housing, employment, and health care. There are also plans to house other veterans service organizations – a kind of one-stop shop for veterans who may not have reliable transportation.

“It’s not just an opportunity to get a few months and then you’re back in an apartment or something,” Williams said. “This is a real opportunity for you to take a deep breath, breathe out and learn to dream again. “

Perry, the Marine Corps veteran, still has the cardboard sign he held while begging in town. But it’s more of a memory than a backup plan. He enrolled in automobile lessons at a local community college and eventually hopes to get his commercial driver’s license and become a truck driver. He also intends to move soon.

Cities across the country are taking note of VCP’s success.

In Sioux Falls, South Dakota, planning director Jason Bieber saw the PCV as a model when the city began to think about where to house its homeless veterans. The leaders of Sioux Falls reached out and ended up becoming partners.

“I think it was always in our minds as being the dream to partner with them and make one of their villages here,” he said. “But (we) never thought it would necessarily be a reality.”

He said the city has identified land for its small village of houses and hopes to start soon. VCP villages in St. Louis and Longmont, Colorado, are also on the way. The organization hopes to have similar villages in eight other cities by the end of 2022.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a collaboration with public media that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

This story is part of our American Homefront Project, a collaboration with public media on in-depth military coverage with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and The Patriots Connection.

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