By Celia Hack, Simone Garza
The number of Wichita veterans who face homelessness is increasing. To see how one community is addressing the issue, KMUW and The Community Voice visited the Veterans Community Project in Kansas City, Missouri.
The residents that greet you at the Veterans Community Project may not walk on two feet.
They may walk on all four.
“There’s a lot of veterans that prefer to stay on the streets instead of leaving their animal behind,” said Kelly Seward, the director of communications for the Kansas-City based nonprofit. “So we’ve got a lot of critters around here.”
The Veterans Community Project, located at 89th and Troost, is dedicated to moving unhoused veterans off the streets. The organization owns a village of tiny homes that houses veterans free of charge and without a deadline to move out.
At the Veterans Community Project, also known as VCP, the barriers for entry are low. Having fewer hurdles to access the program is crucial for VCP, which welcomes all veterans — regardless of their discharge status, the branch they served in or whether they have a furry four-legged pal.
“The approach differs from many veteran benefits, which have a lot of red tape,” said Chris Admire, executive director of the nonprofit.
“Maybe you didn’t serve long enough, or maybe you served in the wrong branch of the military. Maybe you were other than honorably discharged … (so) you were never, ever eligible for benefits.”
The founders of the Veterans Community Project said they wanted to change that perspective.
“They just wanted to define a veteran as somebody that raised their right hand to serve the country,” Admire said.
Wichita faces challenges with unhoused veterans
In Wichita, the number of unhoused veterans is growing. According to the United Way, 66 veterans in Wichita experienced homelessness in 2022. That’s a 16% increase from the 2017 report of 57 unhoused veterans.
In 2019, the nonprofit Homefront Veteran Neighborhood planned to install cottages and services in south Wichita for homeless veterans. But the vision slipped away when the pandemic hit, delaying the development.
Meanwhile, the VCP has been able to expand its reach, opening new tiny village communities in Oklahoma and Wisconsin. It offers a blueprint for what could be possible in Wichita.
VCP tackling mental health
The plan to provide houseless veterans with essentials and a feeling of stability started in 2018, with 13 tiny houses measuring 240 to 320 square feet. Today, it has 49 fully occupied tiny houses.
The floor plans of the tiny homes are similar to studio apartments. There’s a full bath and a large living area that serves as the sleeping, living, cooking and eating area.
The homes come fully equipped with new furniture, appliances, cooking utensils, groceries and cleaning supplies. When a vet leaves to move into a permanent home, they can take everything from the tiny home with them.
The nonprofit also provides health and dental services, employment referrals, education and financial literacy, all while helping the vets build a personal support network.
Housing, groceries and employment all help veterans meet their physical and financial needs. But many are also seeking help for their mental well-being.
”We talk a lot about this being the lowest barrier to entry possible, and one of the reasons behind that is you hear the stats about [the] veteran suicide rate,” Seward said, adding that many veterans who die by suicide aren’t connected to veterans’ services.
Case managers can help connect veterans with off-campus mental health counselors or other community partners working on mental health.
And the homes were developed specifically for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They’re soundproofed with extra-thick walls. The windows and the positioning of the houses on the lots are designed so the vets have a clear view of who’s approaching, something that the founders say is also important to vets.
To help address anxiety and other PTSD symptoms, a circular labyrinth was installed in a green space near the edge of the village.
“The idea behind it is when you approach the labyrinth you’re supposed to bring your problem, set an intention and then when you get to the middle, you’re supposed to lay it down and walk your way out,” Seward said.
Journey to success
Ira Weddington, a Marine Corps veteran, was one of the Veterans Community Project’s first 13 residents. He said he first visited the Veterans Outreach Center, which the nonprofit operates as a walk-in support service for veterans.
“I had got a ride up there to get a bus pass, and they had a brochure sitting there,” he said. “I read it, started talking to one of the counselors, and they said I was what they were looking for.”
Weddington said he had been couch surfing for about two years when he was offered a tiny home in 2018.
Once a resident is financially stable with a source of income, case managers help them search for and transition to permanent housing.
Since VCP opened, Seward said nearly 100 veterans have made a tiny house their temporary home. Of those, VCP has a 85% success rate.
“85% of the veterans who come through this program are able to transition into their own permanent housing and stay housed … which is really high,” Seward said.
The success rate comes at a price. Admire said the annual operational budget for Kansas City’s village is approximately $2.3 million.
But the nonprofit has an impressive fundraising arm. It’s almost entirely funded by private donations and avoids taking money from entities like the government, which might limit the kind of veterans the agency serves.
Affordable housing a challenge
With spiking rents in the Greater Kansas City area, Seward says one of the biggest struggles is finding affordable housing for veterans ready to transition out of the program.
Weddington got lucky. After staying at the Village for two years, he moved to his own apartment. As he planned to move out, VCP drove him around to look at housing options.
“They had people come by in a van and take me [to] different places, and register to get a place,” he said.
Weddington still lives in the same apartment today.
“VCP helped me out very much,” Weddington said. “It gave me the opportunity to look and see where I was headed in life … gave me all the tools that I needed to advance myself.”
This story was produced as part of the Wichita Journalism Collaborative, a coalition of 10 newsrooms and community partners, including The Community Voice.
This article was republished here with the permission of: KMUW, The Community Voice