It all started on Memorial Day in 2015. Kevin Jamison, a retired Marine, and Chris Stout, an Army veteran, decided on that day that they needed to do something to help their fellow veterans who were spending their days and nights on the streets of Kansas City, Missouri.
“We knew we were going to do something different,” Jamison told Opportunity Lives.
That “something different” became the Veterans Community Project (VCP).
At the time, Jamison was doing street outreach to homeless veterans through a local church. This particular outreach program was funded by a government grant, so it had limitations on the definition of “veteran.” Dishonorably discharged veterans didn’t qualify for services, and reservists often were left out, too, because they hadn’t accrued enough active duty days.
“I found myself saying no to as many vets as I was saying yes to,” Jamison recalled, “and it really bothered me.”
Jamison and Stout decided they would serve all veterans, including those who didn’t qualify for other programs offered by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Veterans Community Project’s definition of a veteran is “anyone who ever took an oath to serve.”
“We never want to say no to a veteran,” Jamison said.
“We never want to say no to a veteran”
VCP estimates there are anywhere from 100 to 200 homeless veterans on the streets of Kansas City on any given night. Some live in the woods, some live under overpasses, and some leave the streets in order to receive services, while many are fighting addiction or struggling with mental health issues.
The issues that lead to veteran homelessness are not all that different from those that lead to homelessness among the general population. According to Jamison, a common denominator among the homeless is trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder. For veterans, this may or may not be combat related. These traumas may have occurred in childhood, adolescence, or even from time spent on the streets.
Lack of social support is also common. Many homeless veterans don’t have family or friends on whom they can rely for support. Some have been ostracized or had trouble assimilating back into society after their military service had ended.
Legal issues are also barriers to reintegrating back into society. The homeless often have frequent interactions with the police, which can lead to bench warrants and fines. Some owe back child support and won’t leave the streets for fear of being arrested.
“We want to help veterans succeed and overcome everything that they’re facing,” Jamison said. “These are guys and gals just truly need a hand up. And we’re going to stand beside them.”
“We knew veterans were victims of a system that’s broken, [they] were falling through the cracks”
When VCP started out, Jamison said he and his partner knew the organization wouldn’t succeed if they simply duplicated what others were doing.
“We knew veterans were victims of a system that’s broken, [they] were falling through the cracks,” Jamison said. “And we saw these veterans getting housed and become un-housed because all people were doing was throwing money at the problem. They weren’t attacking the symptoms and causes of homelessness.”
The first step in making VCP a reality was a meeting with Teresa Loar, a Kansas City councilwoman. She suggested Jamison and Stout try building tiny houses for veterans. After looking at that concept from both a financial and a social support and social service perspective, they realized they could build each house for under $15,000 apiece.
“It was a win and we just went with it,” Jamison said.
Garnering support from local elected officials turned out not to be a problem. Loar introduced the duo to Kansas City Mayor Sly James, himself a Marine veteran. James, in turn, connected them with the Kansas City Land Bank, a database of vacant and abandoned lots. In February 2016, Veterans Community Project purchased a 4.2-acre lot within Kansas City limits for just $500
Getting buy-in from the community was important to Jamison and Stout. When there was some pushback from the public — a few people actually accused VCP of “putting veterans in sheds” — they self-funded building the first house so the public could see their vision for VCP and the tiny house village.
The houses themselves are 240 square feet and feature a full bathroom, a tank-less water heating system, heating and air conditioning, twin bed, desk, refrigerator, stove, computer, television and a living space that is intentionally left bare so the veteran can customize it to meet his or her needs. Everything within the tiny house will become the property of the veteran, and they can take everything they need with them when they transition out of the village.
VCP plans to begin housing veterans in July or August. As Jamison and Stout have about 40 veterans with whom they are in close contact, assessing their needs and health status, with future treatment plans in mind.
An important part of the tiny house village will be the community center, a place where the people of Kansas City can give back to the veterans. Already, psychiatrists, doctors, nurses and dentists have volunteered their services; VCP also has a chef that wants to teach cooking classes. There’s even a group offering equine therapy.
Animals play an important role in recovery. Some veterans will arrive at the village with a pet, and VCP will make it a practice not only to take pets, but also to encourage companionship with animals. VCP has developed partnerships with the local ASPCA and other groups to provide services for pets that will live in the village and offer service animals to veterans who need one as part of their therapy and recovery.
In a stroke of good fortune, U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) showed up to help cut the ribbon on that first house Jamison and Stout built. With that, VCP’s effort to build a tiny house village for homeless vets went national.
“Sometimes, an idea becomes greater than the people who thought of it,” Jamison said.
The beauty of the VCP model is that it can be scaled and replicated in communities across the country; their holistic approach could be the key to helping the estimated 40,000 veterans currently living on the streets of America.
But for Jamison, there’s only one number that counts. “The only number I’m concerned about is one,” he said. “And if there’s one homeless veteran out there, that’s one too many.”
Teri Christoph is a contributor for Opportunity Lives, a co-founder of Smart Girl Politics, an online community for conservative women, and a full-time fundraiser for conservative candidates and causes. She lives in Leesburg, Virginia, with her husband and four children. Follow Teri on Twitter @TeriChristoph.