The residents who greet you at the Veterans Community Project may not walk on their feet.
They can walk on all fours.
“There are a lot of veterans who would rather be on the road than leave their pet,” said Kelly Seward, director of communications for the Kansas City-based nonprofit. “So we have a lot of creatures around here.”
The Veterans Community Project, located at 89th and Troost, is dedicated to moving homeless veterans off the streets. The organization owns a village of tiny houses that houses veterans for free and with no deadline to move.
At the Veterans Community Project, also known as the VCP, the barriers to entry are low. Having fewer barriers to entering the program is key to VCP, which welcomes all veterans, regardless of their discharge status, which branch they served in, or whether they have a furry four-legged friend.
“The approach differs from many veterans benefits, which have a lot of red tape,” said Chris Admire, executive director of the nonprofit.
“Maybe you haven’t served long enough, or maybe you served in the wrong branch of the military. Maybe you were other than the honorably discharged… (so) you were never, ever entitled to benefits.”
The founders of the Veterans Community Project said they wanted to change that perspective.
“They just wanted to define a veteran as someone who raised his right hand to serve the country,” Admire said.
Wichita faces challenges with homeless veterans
In Wichita, the number of homeless veterans is growing. According to United Way, 66 veterans in Wichita experienced homelessness in 2022. This is a 16% increase from the 2017 report of 57 veterans.
In 2019, the nonprofit Homefront Veteran Neighborhood planned to install cottages and amenities in South Wichita for homeless veterans. But the vision faded when the pandemic hit, delaying development.
Meanwhile, the VCP was able to expand its reach, opening up new small village communities in Oklahoma and Wisconsin. It offers a blueprint for what might be possible in Wichita.
VCP addressing mental health
The plan to provide homeless veterans with the essentials and a feeling of stability began in 2018, with 13 tiny homes measuring 240 to 320 square feet. Today it has 49 fully occupied tiny homes.
The floor plans of the tiny houses are similar to studio apartments. There is a full bathroom and a large living area that serves as a sleeping, living, kitchen and dining area.
The homes are fully equipped with new furniture, appliances, cooking utensils, groceries, and cleaning supplies. When a vet leaves to move to a permanent home, he can take everything from the tiny house with him.
The nonprofit also provides health and dental services, employment referrals, education, and financial literacy, all while helping veterinarians build a personal support network.
Housing, groceries, and jobs help all veterans meet their physical and financial needs. But many also seek help for their mental well-being.
“We talk a lot about this being the lowest possible barrier to entry, and one of the reasons behind that is you hear the stats on [the] veteran suicide rate,” Seward said, adding that many veterans who die by suicide are not connected to veterans’ services.
Case managers can help connect veterans with off-campus mental health counselors or other community partners who work on mental health.
And the homes were developed especially for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They are soundproofed with very thick walls. The windows and the placement of the houses on the lots are designed so that the vets have a clear view of who is approaching, which the founders say is also important for vets.
To help deal with anxiety and other PTSD symptoms, a circular maze has been installed in a green space near the village border.
“The idea behind it is that when you approach the maze you should bring your problem, set an intention and then when you get to the center, you should put it down and walk out,” Seward said.
The maze is built for people suffering from PTSD.
Journey to success
Ira Weddington, a Marine Corps veteran, was one of the first 13 residents of the Veterans Community Project. He said he first visited the Veterans Outreach Center, which the nonprofit operates as a walk-in support service for veterans.
“I had hitched a ride up there to get a bus pass, and they had a brochure sitting there,” she said. “I read it, started talking to one of the consultants, and they said I was the one they were looking for.”
Weddington said he had been couch surfing for about two years when he was offered a small home in 2018.
Once a resident is financially stable with a source of income, case managers help them find and move into permanent housing.
Since the opening of the VCP, Seward said nearly 100 veterans have made a small house their temporary home. Of these, VCP has an 85% success rate.
“85 percent of Veterans who go through this program are able to move into their permanent housing and stay housed … which is really high,” Seward said.
The success rate comes at a price. Admire said the annual operating budget for the Kansas City Village is approximately $2.3 million.
But the nonprofit has an impressive fundraising arm. It is funded almost entirely by private donations and avoids taking money from entities such as the government, which may limit the type of veterans the agency serves.
The nonprofit operates a weekday outreach center open to all veterans in need of services.
Affordable housing a challenge
With rents rising in the Greater Kansas City area, Seward says one of the biggest struggles is finding affordable housing for veterans ready to exit the program.
Weddington was lucky. After being in the Village for two years, he moved into his apartment. As he planned to move, VCP took him around to look into housing options.
“They had people come in a van and they took me [to] different places and register to get a place,” he said.
Weddington still lives in the same apartment today.
“VCP has helped me a lot,” Weddington said. “It gave me the opportunity to look and see where I was headed in life…it gave me all the tools I needed to progress.”
This story was produced as part of the Wichita Journalism Collaborative, a coalition of 10 newsrooms and community partners, including The Wichita Eagle.