How to make a homeless veterans project hip? It takes a village of tiny houses

Watch as Veterans Community Project workers build tiny houses in KC

A GoPro camera captured the project by the Veterans Community Project of building a tiny house Oct. 21-23 in Veterans Village, near East 89th Street and Troost Avenue. The house will be auctioned to raise funds to house homeless veterans in other
Up Next
A GoPro camera captured the project by the Veterans Community Project of building a tiny house Oct. 21-23 in Veterans Village, near East 89th Street and Troost Avenue. The house will be auctioned to raise funds to house homeless veterans in other

Their original plan was OK though much lacking in curb appeal.

Last year a few combat veterans from around Kansas City set out to find housing for dozens of their homeless comrades: Maybe raise enough funds to buy an abandoned school? Or a vacant motel?

Well intentioned. But ho-hum.

Then the group started talking about tiny houses, 12 feet by 20 feet, and created real buzz. The Veterans Community Project is now one of the hottest outreach efforts in town.

A planned village of as many as 50 “micro homes,” cuddly as could be, built to code and rent-free. Each with a bathroom, bed, desk and kitchen.

Credit swell timing: Who by now hasn’t heard of America’s tiny-house craze?

Yet back then, retired Marine Corps veteran Kevin Jamison hadn’t.

He and others searching for solutions to veteran homelessness were in the middle of their weekly brainstorms — beers at a Northland Houlihan’s — when one of the attendees, Kansas City Councilwoman Teresa Loar, mentioned a broadcast about tiny houses that she saw on the HGTV channel.

“I’m thinking...what, like a fishing cabin?” recalled Jamison.

That was just 15 months ago.

Jamison and Army veteran Chris Stout, both who served tours in Iraq (and Afghanistan for Stout), researched a few miniature-house communities — some of them makeshift slums — in other cities. The partners vowed to make their project one of lasting quality, a neighborhood ex-service members deserved.

They had enough of a plan to go to the news media last Veterans Day. They’ll admit now that they weren’t really sure what they were doing.

But as Veterans Day 2016 nears (Nov. 11), the first 10 tiny houses of the Veterans Community Project (VCP) are sprouting on 4.2 acres of never-developed land at Troost Avenue and 89th Street.

Human help, donated supplies and mostly private funding are the keys.

At the KC site to provide tiny houses for homeless vets, Chris and Mark Lawrence arrive Sept. 17 with "2x4s For Hope." This video was originally published Sept. 17, 2016.

Companies such as Home Depot have provided as many as 150 volunteer laborers to work Saturdays. The United Auto Workers Local 249 of Ford’s Claycomo plant raised $50,000, enough to build and outfit five houses.

Learning as they go, project leaders are still working the details. What started as a goal of 30 new houses grew to 50, for example, because they found the room.

For now the focus is homebuilding. When tiny houses are up “we’ll find some way,” Jamison likes to say, of getting people in, their lives stabilized, their addictions and other issues addressed — all with the end game of moving them on to self-sufficiency and places of their own.

The easy part so far has been fielding publicity.

“International news!! Anyone speak Polish?” said the project’s Facebook page after a TV station in Poland asked organizers to make a video.

In October, Zach Giffin, host of TV’s “Tiny House Nation,” dropped in for a week to help build.

A month earlier Mark and Chris Lawrence of Quincy, Ill., arrived with 5,292 strips of free lumber loaded on a flatbed. The Lawrences’ charity, 2X4s For Hope, allows donors to sponsor a piece a wood and write messages of thanks and devotion to the vets who will benefit.

The lumber truck had a blowout on Interstate 70. The tow driver who responded saw the cargo and replaced the tire for free.

Even kids are into this.

Illinoisan Natalie Wiemelt, 11, forfeited birthday gifts and raised $1,700 from friends and family for the village.

At Santa-Cali-Gon Days in Independence, children were dragging parents into the model house on wheels, which was finished in May. News of its ribbon-cutting went viral online, and the VCP Facebook site picked up more than 3,300 “likes” practically overnight.

Project participants continue to cart their little blue house to schools and youth sporting events around the region.

In the latest turn of good fortune, leaders of the effort — some of whom have given up their day jobs since incorporating the nonprofit a year ago — landed free office suites overlooking the Country Club Plaza. The Bernstein-Rein ad agency donated the space on the building’s 13th floor.

The Veterans Community Project wasted no time squeezing four cheap desks into a room with a spectacular view.

“I’m thrilled to be a part of it,” said Mary Eisenhower, granddaughter to the late U.S. president and a member of the group’s board of directors, along with Councilwoman Loar.

“It’s just people doing things for people, as opposed to government trying to do it,” said Eisenhower, who is chief executive of Kansas City-based People to People International, a global humanitarian initiative. “When it’s left up to the people, you actually can get a whole lot done.”

Said Ted Anderson of the Kansas City Land Bank, which provided the village’s four acres at a cost of $500: “It comes down to the determination basically of these two guys (Stout and Jamison). They’ve gone after this with military precision.”

When shopping for a site, Stout had some specific demands: The land had to be within city limits. It couldn’t be near a liquor store or bar. “And it had to be on a bus line,” he said of the search. “That was non-negotiable.”

The mission has encountered setbacks, plenty of them.

The biggest: Organizers wrongly assumed the land they bought had sewer lines. They learned otherwise when a civil engineer who volunteered to clear brush looked around for manholes and broke the news: Dudes, no sewers.

Perhaps that explained why old golf balls kept turning up. The group concluded the property once was a driving range.

The city’s Public Improvement Advisory Committee agreed to run sewer lines at a cost of $325,000. But that ongoing job will delay the homes’ construction and the arrival of the first residents — none of whom has yet been identified.

Jamison said the 10 houses in the works will be ready for occupancy in the spring. After that he hopes construction will begin on an $800,000 community center with a kitchen area, laundromat and offices to provide help for residents needing job training, addiction counseling and other services.

“We know tiny houses right now have sex appeal,” said Jamison. “But that community center will be just as important.”

More traditional players in Kansas City’s efforts to end homelessness caution that a neighborhood of future tiny houses — though “flashy and trendy” for the moment, in the words of ReStart, Inc.’s Evelyn Craig — may lose its appeal decades from now.

Even if the homes hold up as temporary quarters for veterans transitioning from the streets to permanent digs, an array of services will be needed to provide stability for the village’s residents, said Craig.

“Media attention is not what houses vets,” she said.

Pardon Craig for sounding a bit sour. ReStart is among 30-plus agencies that have collaborated with little fanfare to house 421 vets since January 2015.

ReStart and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs say that by 2017 the area will have provided enough shelter to chronically homeless veterans to reach a target called “functional zero.” Based on a complex formula that has its critics, the term applies to communities able to show that the numbers of veterans placed in permanent housing on a monthly average exceed the number of those known to be homeless.

Only two other Midwestern cities have declared their homeless veteran problems at “functional zero,” and the Kansas City area is said to be fewer than 30 homeless veterans away from achieving it.

Still, a recent event highlighting the area’s successes drew only two media outlets — none from Poland or the HGTV channel.

Meantime, volunteers at the Veterans Community Project flocked by the dozens to clear timber and paint tiny houses.

“We’re not trying to compete with other groups helping veterans. They’re all great. But to promote this idea of ‘functional zero’ homelessness is dangerous” and deceiving, said lawyer Bryan Meyer. Himself a Marine, he is the Veterans Community Project’s chief legal officer.

“You’ll always have homeless veterans. It’s a constant carousel.”

The first tiny house in a planned village of the homes was dedicated by the Veterans Community Project May 2, 2016, near 89th St. and Troost Avenue. The 240-square-foot homes will provide transitional housing for homeless veterans.

Jamison used to work for ReStart. He said he met too many veterans who didn’t qualify for housing help through the VA or other conventional means.

Reservists who never deployed were typically left in the cold, as were veterans dishonorably discharged.

People wanting to bring their pets into shelters were denied. So they quit trying.

“They’d tell us, ‘We want four walls. We’re not going to another shelter,’ ” Stout said.

For now he and Jamison are careful not to promise a tiny house anytime soon to veterans needing a place. “If you have to go back on your word once, you’ve lost them,” Jamison said.

It can be a challenge just to persuade them to leave the woods. Some like it there.

One is an Army vet who calls himself White Hawk.

He credits the outdoor survival maneuvers that he performed in the 1980s, when stationed in Germany, for living today beneath a tarp on a bluff over the West Bottoms.

“I still like that moving around, kind of like you’re playing Army,” he said while stirring a boiling pot of skinned potatoes.

Jamison and Stout have known White Hawk and others up there — most known only by their nicknames — for years. Jamison recently made the climb up a steep path that the homeless have made navigable with railroad ties, large rocks and scrap tubing that serve as handrails.

White Hawk, 57, said that “I don’t think it would be a slam dunk” to abandon the bluff for a tiny-house village.

“This is pretty cheap,” he said of the lifestyle. Having spent time in prison, White Hawk said he doesn’t want to have to work a dishwashing job or other menial labor that convicts often must accept.

Here he can bake homemade pies, hunt for small game, care for stray cats and listen all day to classic rock on a portable radio (though some of his homeless neighbors said they preferred NPR).

Despite his reservations, White Hawk showed up that weekend at the Veterans Village to help install siding and wallboard.

He joked with the crew of “Tiny House Nation.” He liked that the model house on site had a small desk.

And he said if he ever chose to live in the planned community, he’d want a tiny house built with his own hands.

Back at the office overlooking the Plaza, Jamison pondered White Hawk’s situation and repeated what the Veterans Community Project is all about:

“We’ll find some way.”

Rick Montgomery: 816-234-4410, @rmontgomery_r