In Kansas City, hundreds of military veterans live without a house, apartment or even a permanent shelter to call home. Many have mental scars that make living in normal society difficult.
But three entrepreneurial veterans are trying to build a solution on a sloping field of grass and trees just east of 89th and Troost in Kansas City.
“We’re looking at four wonderful acres,” says Kevin Jamison, squinting into the sun. “Because it’s not the land, it’s what’s going to be done with the land.”
Jamison, along with his partners in the Veterans Community Project, paid $500 for this land. They bought it from the City Land Bank, and plan to fill it with 45 or 50 little tiny houses.
That’s right. Tiny houses — miniature homes with all the regular house stuff compressed into maybe a third or a quarter the size of a big suburban living room. The Veterans Community Project intends to make the tiny houses available, for free, to homeless veterans.
So far, there’s one: a simple blue place. It looks like a big garden shed from the outside but seems very homey when you step inside.
“This is the bed here,” says Jamison, showing off the house. “There’s the bathroom with a shower, and there’s a water heater in here.”
Jamison was in the Marine Corps. Working with homeless veterans the last couple of years, he noticed that homeless shelters weren’t working for everybody. In fact, there was one guy in particular.
“We designed this program for guys like White Hawk,” Jamison says.
White Hawk is a street name. The man using it gets around on crutches. He’s got a bushy white beard and blue-gray eyes. He says he served in the Army in West Germany during the Cold War.
“I’m eating on food stamps,” says White Hawk. “I don’t have any income coming in. I fly a sign once in a while. I panhandle. But, there’s techniques of all that.”
White Hawk says he’s has been homeless since 2009, when he got out of prison. He says the felony on his record makes it hard to get a job, but he’d be a great candidate for a spot in a homeless shelter ... except for a couple of things. For one, he’s not alone.
“I’ve got nine cats,” says White Hawk, with a chuckle. “Three of them really ain’t mine. Six really, and we got kittens, too.”
Homeless shelters typically forbid dogs or cats, let alone a room full of them. Lots of homeless veterans have pets and are fiercely devoted to them, so a pet ban creates a real hardship for many.
The other thing about White Hawk, and perhaps others in his situation, is that he just doesn’t mind much being homeless.
“I’m pretty much set up right now,” says White Hawk, describing his homeless camp in the woods. “Spent a little money and got an awning. I got most of the tarps I need to keep the water out. Got a tent underneath. I got a bed and heat it with candles.”
At this point, Jerry, White Hawk’s friend, here with him to look at the tiny house, chimes in.
“Society has rules. And we like to be free,” says Jerry.
Jerry has been living in the camp near White Hawk for years, away from the tension of homeless shelters, or broader societal expectations.
“I don’t like to deal with headaches, and being in society is a headache. You’ve got neighbors. There are things I like to do that neighbors don’t want. So if I live out there I’m free, I don’t have a neighbor, explains Jerry. “And if I do have a neighbor it’ll be someone like White Hawk that, does the same as I do.”
The fact that some vets would rather be homeless than live in a shelter comes as no shock to Chris Stout.
“Isolation is a huge thing, and reintegration is tough,” says Stout, president of the Veterans Community Project. “The reality is probably most of them are on the street so they can maintain that isolation, and we realize it.”
Stout, an Army vet, also works professionally with the homeless, and was Jamison’s first partner in the project.
“We want to bring them in and teach them those soft skills, and help them reintegrate,” Stout says. “We want to set up some structure. Because they understand structure, better than anybody.”
And Stout says pets will absolutely be allowed in the tiny houses. After all, he says, if one of them gets completely trashed, they can replace it for less than $10,000. Living in the houses will also be free, even if the veteran has some income.
Stout, Jamison and their other partner, Navy reservist Mark Solomon, credit Kansas City Councilwoman Teresa Loar with coming up with the idea to use tiny houses instead of trying to build a traditional homeless shelter. She says it was an informal suggestion.
“I just discussed it one evening with the boys over a couple of beers, actually,” Loar says.
Private-sector citizens and organizations have put up all the money for the project so far, with the United Auto Workers donating the most. But the city has a role. In addition to help getting permits and a deal on the land, it’s going to have to plumb the site with water and sewer pipes to accommodate up to 50 tiny houses.
Lore says if this Veterans Village development works in Kansas City, it may be a national model.
“We went to a lot of veterans’ organizations in Washington D.C., and they are watching to see if this works. So we are in fact on the cutting edge here, almost a pilot program to see if this works out,” Loar says.
U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver is already on board. Cleaver sits on a House subcommittee on housing and insurance. He says he intends to get, the secretaries of both the Veterans Administration and Housing and Urban Development to come take a look at what’s going on in Kansas City.
“The federal government can’t afford to be the taillights on project like this,” Cleaver says. “We need to be
there out front.”
But, no one can force veterans to take advantage of the tiny houses, and White Hawk is still making up his mind.
“Well, I’ll have to ... give it some thought,” he muses.
Jamison, Stout and Solomon don’t think every homeless veteran is going to be so hard to convince. They intend to have people living in furnished tiny houses in their Veterans Village, with AC, heat and running water, by the end of the summer.
Frank Morris is a national correspondent and senior editor at KCUR 89.3. You can reach him on Twitter, @FrankNewsman.