New KC center for homeless veterans offers ‘homes for the brave’

06/08/2014 9:50 PM

06/17/2014 11:12 AM

Shortly after 7 a.m. Friday, dozens of men and a few women were already lining up to get help at the annual Heart of America Stand Down for homeless veterans.

Some said they were couch surfing with friends and family while trying to find an affordable permanent home. Others had spent time under bridges and were living in transitional housing while trying to find jobs and places of their own.

That just shows the needs of so many veterans, said Kansas City lawyer and Vietnam combat veteran Art Fillmore, who started the Stand Down events 21 years ago. Since then, Fillmore has had a bigger dream of providing permanent housing and comprehensive case management all in one place.

That dream will be realized at the end of this month, when St. Michael’s Veterans Center officially opens the first of three planned buildings, with 58 apartment units for homeless veterans and a full complement of social services in the same building. Many say the project is unusual and innovative, especially in this region.

“It’s far more beautiful than I ever imagined it would or could be,” Fillmore said of the three-story edifice at 3838 Chelsea Drive, on a hill just south of the VA Medical Center. “It doesn’t resemble anything but first-rate market housing.”

Navy veteran Markus Mack, 56, who has been homeless off and on for three years after a bout with cancer, said he had heard of St. Michael’s and even applied but had then opted for a more portable type of veterans housing voucher.

Still, Mack said, St. Michael’s will fill a real void for needy veterans in Kansas City.

“It will give them a good start to get their dignity back,” Mack said. “We’re men who fought for our country. We don’t want to be forgotten.”

The project has been in the works for more than four years and came together through a partnership between Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph and Yarco Co., a firm that develops and manages special needs multifamily housing.

For the 58 veterans picked to fill the new building, it will be a bit like winning the lottery. Designed by Rosemann & Associates and built by Yarco, the apartments have spacious wheelchair-accessible rooms, granite countertops and tile floors in the kitchens, stylish ceiling fans and walk-in showers.

“We’ve tried to make it as personal as we can, as friendly as we can,” Yarco Chairman Cliff Cohn said. “This is going to be somebody’s castle.”

The building also has large and small community gathering areas, outpatient medical care, and rooms for physical fitness, computer and job training. It’s close to bus lines, shopping areas, churches and the Truman Sports Complex.

After veterans know they have stable long-term housing, they can then begin to address other challenges, said Eric Verzola, a retired Army major and Iraq combat veteran who is now Catholic Charities’ veterans’ services director.

He said the best part of his job is being able to help those who are really struggling, including some living in their cars or in shelters with no place to store their belongings.

“When you don’t have a place to live, that burden is on you,” Verzola said. “It consumes you, and other things start getting out of control.”

Catholic Charities will work with a dozen other agencies on-site to provide everything from legal and financial assistance to post-traumatic stress recovery and companion animals.

Verzola and Fillmore, who serves on the St. Michael’s board, declined to identify the residents who will be moving in but said the building will be fully leased by the June 30 grand opening. About 70 or 80 have applied, and Fillmore said the facility will house one couple and 57 individual men, primarily Vietnam-era vets but some from Desert Storm and more recent combat.

Those chosen, Fillmore said, were the ones most motivated to take advantage of the services and the most employable, so they can begin to pay some rent at St. Michael’s and free up low-income housing vouchers for others.

When St. Michael’s is fully built out in several years it is expected to be a $34 million complex with 180 affordable rental units in three buildings on a 24-acre property.

Fillmore, who has researched other veterans’ programs, believes it will be unusual in the country because of its comprehensive services, its proximity to the VA and its campus setting that lets veterans create their own supportive community.

He has a simple slogan for what St. Michael’s will be: “Homes for the brave.”

The project is also noteworthy because of what it replaces. It fills a site where a decrepit 198-unit public housing project called Holy Temples Homes once stood. Those units were torn down years ago, but the vacant land became overgrown and a dump site.

Finally in 2011, city government officials sought development proposals, and the St. Michael’s idea beat out three other more traditional multifamily plans.

The need is readily evident. A Kansas City area count on Jan. 30 identified 200 homeless veterans, including 101 in emergency shelters, 62 in transitional housing and 35 unsheltered.

Catholic Charities estimates the metro area number is actually much higher, approaching 1,400 to 1,800.

Kansas City VA Medical Center and U.S Housing and Urban Development officials praised the completion of the first St. Michael’s building as an important part of an emerging national campaign to end veteran homelessness.

“We are particularly pleased that the new center will be located in such close proximity to the main medical center. The Kansas City VA looks forward to being part of this exciting initiative,” assistant director Michael Moore said.

The first building cost about $11 million, financed with some federal grant funding and primarily with an investment from a U.S. Bank community development subsidiary using federal and state low-income tax credits. The city also contributed about $1.2 million to grade the site and build a new road.

For a while earlier this year, it looked like tax credits to finance the second $11 million building might be in jeopardy, but they were recently approved, said Stuart Bullington, deputy director of Kansas City’s neighborhoods and housing department. The city will contribute $1.2 million in block grant funds for a service center as part of the second building. Construction should begin this fall and take about 18 months.

The city will hold meetings soon, Bullington said, to try to figure out the final phase financing. “It would be nice if some national funders would step up and support this,” he said.

Residents of the Seven Oaks Neighborhood Association, which includes the St. Michael’s site, are thrilled with the new development, replacing what had been an eyesore and a nuisance.

“It’s absolutely gorgeous,” said neighborhood association president Gwendolyn Davis.

She said having homeless and at-risk veterans move into the area is not a concern, and the neighborhood welcomes them.

“Everybody deserves a better place,” she said. “I think they’ll fit right in.”

To reach Lynn Horsley, call 816-226-2058 or send email to lhorsley@kcstar.com.

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