With their hot idea — tiny houses for homeless veterans — hitting a cold stretch, the ex-service members leading a Kansas City community project are storming the next hill.
Thursday marks the grand opening of a “Veterans Outreach Center” adjacent to a swath of undeveloped land at Troost Avenue and 89th Street. That property is where a battalion of determined men and women have mapped out a tiny-house neighborhood that last year drew global media interest.
This latest bit of news caught some in Kansas City by surprise. Veterans Outreach Center? When did that come along?
Oh, just within the last couple of months.
Organizers of the upstart Veterans Community Project admit to moving forward with ideas that haven’t been thoroughly vetted. But compared with the densely regulated cluster of conventional agencies striving to put needy veterans into homes, these tiny-house visionaries prefer to operate this way.
“We’re not afraid to pull the trigger,” said Marine Corps veteran Bryan Meyer, the project’s chief legal officer. “That’s who we are. It’s how we’ve been trained.”
The new outreach center, which volunteers have been scurrying all month to make presentable, in time will provide free legal services, job referrals and training, computer literacy courses, a food pantry, offices for project staff and free bus passes for area veterans, homeless or not.
With the tiny-house part of the plan delayed by winter and infrastructure issues, “we couldn’t sit still,” said project operations officer Kevin Jamison, a Marine veteran. “We wanted to start helping veterans. It’s that simple.”
All good, say directors of more-established service providers in the area — but can we work together?
Dozens of nonprofit agencies have for years met regularly and coordinated with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and other government groups to address the city’s homelessness problem.
The combat veterans who founded Veterans Community Project “are a private organization and have the right to do what they wish,” said Evelyn Craig, president of reStart Inc. “But none of us in the homeless-circle community knows what’s happening here.”
ReStart, since 1981 a provider of housing and support services to area homeless, is among more than 70 agencies active in the Greater Kansas City Coalition to End Homelessness.
The coalition’s executive director, Vickie Riddle, said coalition representatives have reached out to the tiny-house planners but “they absolutely refuse to be part of the coalition.”
“We want them to tell us what they’re doing so we can help,” Riddle said.
Those steering the Veterans Community Project boat say they have nothing against any group trying to serve veterans and put them in homes. But the project, co-founded by Jamison and Army veteran Chris Stout, aims to serve ex-military members that many programs won’t, including veterans dishonorably discharged and those who served in the National Guard or Reserves.
A big reason Iraqi veteran Jamison helped launch the project, which incorporated as a nonprofit in late 2015, is because as a ReStart worker he turned down too many of those ex-service members needing assistance, he says.
And the organization’s detachment from federal red tape no doubt has drawn more volunteer vigor, financial support and equipment donations than the project would otherwise have. Its supporters include banks and trade unions, Home Depot and Kansas City Mayor Sly James. City Councilwoman Teresa Loar serves on the project’s board.
As for the new outreach center, it came together in a flurry — like much that the Veterans Community Project has done. Renovation of the 7,000-square-foot building energized organizers and volunteers whose work in the tiny-house Veteran Village just down the road had been slowed by weather and deeper problems.
They envisioned the first 10 tiny houses to be finished by the end of 2016, with occupants moving in rent-free shortly thereafter. But the 4.2 undeveloped acres, acquired for $500 from the Kansas City Land Bank, turned out to lack sewer lines.
The Veterans Community Project was granted $325,000 from the city’s Public Improvement Advisory Committee to help run the lines. But the setback likely will delay occupancy of the first 10 houses until late summer, Jamison said.
Until then the Veterans Outreach Center, though not in the project’s original plans, will factor into future efforts in positive ways. Jamison said a planned $800,000 community center on the site of the tiny-house village can be shaved by more than half.
Also, future tiny houses — as many as 50 total, if all goes as planned — can be built inside a large maintenance garage in the outreach center. It was an empty auto-parts store until the project bought the building in February.
Legal officer Meyer, who left a law firm to devote his full attention to the project, said he put up his own home as collateral to cover a loan for the building.
Since then, volunteer crews of mostly veterans and their families have worked to make 8900 Troost functional and even, from the outside, kind of attractive. They painted the exterior royal blue and erected stained-wood trim, sprucing up a barren intersection defined by storage lockers.
“We all worked here till midnight Monday, midnight Tuesday, and tonight we’re probably pulling an all-nighter,” Meyer said Wednesday.
Meyer has strong opinions about the way the local service network for homeless veterans is confronting the problem. Kansas City agencies have embraced a national initiative launched in 2014 to reach a target called “functional zero.”
Based on a complex formula of monthly housing averages, the goal is for communities to show that the numbers of veterans placed in permanent shelter exceed the numbers of those known to be homeless.
Meyer thinks it’s bogus for the agency establishment to think that homeless veterans can be counted, and if “functional zero” is attained, the problem goes away.
Yet Craig of ReStart says the initiative spurred more than 30 agencies into action to successfully house more than 420 homeless veterans in 2015 and 2016.
“The idea around coordination is the maximization of resources,” Craig says. “You don’t want to have (service providers) working in their own little silos...
“There can be a lot of bureaucracy, a lot of questions asked. And it can get frustrating. But these things have worked nationwide.”
For the project’s Jamison, the bottom line is making sure every veteran gets help when help is needed, whether all qualifications are met or not.
He says he has no issue with the Coalition to End Homelessness sitting together to attack problems, but “we were too busy building houses to attend.”