‘It’s a beautiful place’: St. Michael’s Veterans Center helping end homelessness in Kansas City
Most weeks in Kansas City, more than three dozen local agencies meet to discuss how to help veterans find places to live.
The effort involves local social service agencies, the Veterans Affairs department, and off-shoot private endeavors like the Veterans Community Project, which gained global attention for building tiny houses to help veterans transition to permanent homes.
It all seems to have worked. A year ago this month, the U.S. government issued a certificate declaring that the Kansas City area “has effectively ended homelessness among veterans,” noting it was the 56th community in the nation to hit that benchmark, and the first straddling two states.
A bold claim. Some rightly say an impossible one to prove.
But Oliver Allen, an Air Force veteran from the Vietnam era, is evidence of the undeniable strides that Kansas City has made putting ex-military members into secure, comfortable housing.
“This is a beautiful place,” he said of St. Michael’s Veterans Center apartments, a private-public project and little known success story tucked into woods near Kansas City’s VA Medical Center.
Backing Allen’s endorsement are 120 lease-abiding neighbors, all veterans either disabled or once homeless. Now they’re in permanent homes where rents are based on their ability to pay.
Veterans Day will be observed Sunday in a time of deep cynicism that government can help fix problems. But whether you are Republican, Democrat or neither, a federal study released earlier this month showed signs that veteran homelessness is slowly being eradicated.
The number of homeless veterans nationwide dropped 5 percent this year, a reversal of a slight increase in 2017, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
That trend may not astonish, but this one should: In the last decade the numbers have plunged practically in half — from about 74,000 reported in 2009 to 37,878 in 2018.
In the Kansas City area, 664 veterans experiencing homelessness were placed in permanent housing between January 2015 and the end of 2017.
“Our nation’s approach to veterans’ homelessness is working,” said HUD Secretary Ben Carson.
‘Functional zero’ defined
Experts here and elsewhere credit the decline in homeless vets to an initiative launched in the first term of President Barack Obama’s administration. The effort prompted scoffs at the time, given that its stated goal was to reduce the number of veterans without housing to zero.
That is, no homeless veterans. Zero.
But the clarion call of many U.S. cities, including both sides of the state line in Kansas City, has been “functional zero.”
The success of that goal — stoked by federal, local and corporate dollars — is determined by a complex mathematical formula designed not so much to show that all veterans have homes, but that communities are prepared to house all who may become homeless.
And according to HUD and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, Kansas City reached that goal in November 2017.
But really, is every veteran around here sheltered?
Of course not, and St. Michael’s resident Allen knows it.
He talks to desperate vets seeking donations along the roadside, burrowing beneath bridges or dwelling under tarps amid trees. Allen tries to convince them to seek help. Sometimes his cajoling works, often it does not.
“You only get one life ... and I’ve made mistakes, trust me. You pay for them,” he said. He was referring to a dive into drug addiction in the 1990s, after serving in the Air Force and working three decades in civilian jobs for the Marine Corps.
Right now, though, Allen knows this: He has a community of empathetic neighbors at St. Michael’s.
He gives back by cooking popcorn for them at the movie theater on the third floor.
Vets don’t choose homelessness
The local agencies that meet weekly to discuss veterans’ issues follow a concept called “Housing First.”
It means getting homeless people quickly into shelter, above all other needs.
In a nutshell: After securing the homeless a place where they can settle, you will then address any problems with mental instability, substance abuse or jobs.
The thinking 15 years ago was to first get those personal issues checked off, “and after that, permanent housing might just sort of follow,” explained Jake Maguire of the national nonprofit Community Solutions, which works with cities to end homelessness.
“I’m sick of people who assume you can never solve this problem,” he said. “Eighty-five percent of people who get connected with permanent housing never become homeless again.
“Homeless veterans want to have homes. If we assume that they choose homelessness, for whatever reason, then a certain fatalism sets in,” Maguire said. “We need to connect them with permanent housing as quickly as possible.”
Rachel Pederson has worked six years with the local Salvation Army, directing its Supportive Services for Veteran Families program. In that time, she’s seen the collaboration and partnership grow among hundreds of area social workers, volunteers, government officials and corporate investors.
“It’s been amazing to watch,” she said. Especially in the Midwest, “the overall recognition that people in the military are serving to protect us, serving to protect others around the world, we owe it to them.”
That sentiment rings true at the St. Michael’s apartments, a veterans-focused project that has garnered the support of US Bank, the Kansas City Housing Authority and more than 40 area volunteer groups.
One of the residents is Army veteran Carl Yonkers, 75. He volunteers every weekday answering the phone.
“Vietnam vets weren’t received very well coming home,” Yonkers said.
For decades he struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, hopping from place to place, and recognizing that homelessness takes many forms.
In most cases it doesn’t mean living outdoors in a tent. It means jumping around in search of affordable rent, or trying to stay with a spouse willing to put up with your emotional problems, or finding a buddy who has a spare couch.
No more of that.
“This is my place,” Yonkers said of St. Michael’s. “It’s me.”
So it is, as well, for Navy veteran Bill “Jazzbo” Hargrave.
In his unit on an upper floor, Hargrave bangs away at a one-man-concert contraption that features (and this is a short list) horns, a drum, harmonica, cowbell and layers of brass cymbals.
None of his neighbors has complained about the racket.
“This place is a menagerie, and I mean that in a good way,” Hargrave said.
What binds them is their military service.
Tiny house program expands
Veteran homelessness will never go away, said Bryan Meyer of the Veterans Community Project, which has an enclave of tiny houses in south Kansas City.
This notion of “functional zero,” or somehow vanquishing the problem, is a farce — however laudable, Meyer said. People of all sorts, including veterans such as himself, will forever be in and out of homelessness.
“My main criticism against it is you take your eye off the ball,” he said. “To do what our community has done absolutely is something worth celebrating. But do we stop making strides when we start celebrating?”
The Veterans Community Project, almost entirely funded by private sponsors, has fielded global media attention. Co-founder Chris Stout, a retired Army corporal who served in 21st-century wars, is a nominee on CNN’s “Hero of the Year.”
The project takes a different stance on housing veterans.
They may have been dishonorably discharged — so what? They may have served on weekends in a reserve unit, unable to qualify for government-funded assistance for rent.
The tiny house project lets them in.
The upstart’s approach has been chided by some as unorganized for not meeting federal rules for veteran assistance. But the project, which began with housing 13 veterans, will soon double. Just last week, the project dedicated 13 new houses at 89th Street and Troost Avenue.
And that’s welcomed by those at St. Michael’s apartments, a place launched by Catholic Charities and follows federal guidelines for veteran eligibility.
“Kansas City is a big small town, and that’s why our people have been so supportive,” said executive director Susan Engel. “All different viewpoints are with us.”