KC campus to combine housing, support for homeless vets

For two decades, Kansas City lawyer and Vietnam combat veteran Art Fillmore has dreamed of providing a “one-stop shop” of quality housing and social services for homeless vets.

Finally, that vision is nearing reality.

And it could be a facility that is rare in the region or even nationally.

Construction is expected to begin early next year on the first phase of the St. Michael’s Veterans Center, which is designed to meet a broad spectrum of homeless veterans’ needs on 24 acres near 39th Street and Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard, just southeast of the VA Medical Center.

“It’s a great location, on a bus route, a beautiful piece of ground,” said Fillmore, a longtime advocate for veterans who is on the board of the nonprofit group that is developing the site. “For 20 years, I’ve been looking for something like this. We don’t need a dormitory. We need a campus.”

Fillmore hopes that, when completed, it can be a national model.

“There are facilities like this, but no campus like this anywhere,” he said. “Nothing like 24 acres dedicated to the homeless vet problem.”

That campus became possible because Kansas City’s Economic Development Corp. had taken control of the ground where a decrepit 198-unit public housing project called Holy Temple Homes once stood. Those units were torn down years ago, but the vacant site eventually became blighted, overgrown and an occasional dumping ground, neighbors said.

Finally in 2011, city officials sought development proposals and a committee chose the St. Michael’s Veterans Center concept that Catholic Charities presented in partnership with Yarco, a development company that specializes in multi-family housing. The St. Michael’s proposal beat out three more traditional multi-family housing proposals.

The proposal ultimately envisions a $34 million complex with about 180 units of affordable housing in three buildings, plus a service center to provide case management, mental health care, job training, computer skills, vocational rehabilitation and an outpatient medical and dental clinic.

“The veterans that they are proposing to serve need help. They need more than just housing,” said Stuart Bullington, who runs the city’s housing and community development division. Veterans of Afghanistan, Iraq and earlier wars will be served, Bullington said, adding, “These are some guys who have been through some tough times.”

The developers have toured and learned from a veterans service project in California, but this will be a distinctive development for the region, especially given its proximity to the VA Medical Center, Bullington said.

“There’s nothing like this in the whole Midwest,” he said.

City Councilwoman Cindy Circo served on the selection committee.

“This was picked for capacity, concept, financial ability,” she said. “The veterans concept was one that, nationally, we’re hearing a lot of money is going to, so financially that’s a really viable project to be doing.”

The need is evident.

According to the St. Michael’s proposal, the federal Department of Veterans Affairs has estimated more than 1,800 military veterans are homeless in the Kansas City community.

Catholic Charities has experience developing housing scattered around the city for low-income and homeless people, including veterans. Through that experience, officials realized it was crucial to combine permanent housing with other services, said Stephanie Ray, the interim CEO of Catholic Charities.

“They won’t have to worry about transportation,” she said. “It will help reduce the barriers that keep them held back. They already have enough as veterans when they come home, in dealing with what they may have lost.”

Much of the funding is expected to come from tax credits, but the city is contributing funds to prepare the site. Fillmore and other advocates also plan to raise money for a garden, honoring all the armed forces plus the National Guard, to enhance the campus landscape and provide residents with a serene place of respite.

But it won’t happen all at once.

The first phase, for which construction should start early next year, will be 58 units of one-bedroom housing in one building, costing about $11 million and funded primarily by low-income tax credit equity.

That building will not be the service center but will include offices for case management and education until the service center can be built, said Mike Grube, the development director for Yarco.

The goal is to complete the first building by the end of 2013, Grube said.

Completion of subsequent buildings depends on funding. Many agencies are competing for low-income housing tax credits, but Joe Egan, the executive director of Kansas City’s Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority, predicts this will be a noteworthy project that should qualify for additional public financing.

Nearby residents, including some in the Vineyard and Seven Oaks neighborhoods, are enthusiastic about having the long-vacant property finally developed.

“I’m just so ecstatic,” said Johnnie Cheatom, a Vineyard resident who participated for two years in meetings on the St. Michael’s proposal. Cheatom served 25 years in the Army in Korea, Germany and Vietnam and now helps other veterans pursue their benefits.

“I’m just so glad to see something get started in this neighborhood,” Cheatom said.

He predicted the project will benefit not just veterans but also neighboring businesses that the veterans will patronize as new residents.

Fillmore said the project won’t solve Kansas City’s entire problem of homeless veterans but will be a great start.“When these vets are doing things with each other, they encourage each other and become friends. It becomes a homelike environment,” he said. “I’m really excited and think it’s going to be a huge success.”