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July/August 2022 -   -  


Five years ago Dick Tobiason read an intriguing magazine article about three Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans in Kansas City, Missouri, launching a venture to help address veteran homelessness. They envisioned building 50 “tiny homes” on land adjacent to the office of the Veterans Community Project (VCP), a program offering a range of services including counseling, job search assistance, and legal advice.

These tiny homes — each built to house a single individual — would be fully furnished, meet all local code requirements, and connect to city utilities. Set up as a veterans’ village, the housing would be transitional, a respite for homeless veterans to rebuild their lives before moving on to group homes or apartments. While living in the community, veterans could avail themselves of VCP’s resources.

Tobiason, a retired Army aviator and VVA life member, wondered if something similar could be created where he lived, in Bend, Oregon. A founder and chair of the Bend Heroes Foundation, Tobiason had worked on many veterans appreciation efforts, including honor flights, special recognition for Gold Star families, and the creation of memorial highways including the Oregon Medal of Honor Highway and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway (I-84) that bisects Oregon. (See “From Sea to Shining Sea: An Oregon Veterans Highway Aspires to Span the Nation” in the May/June 2020 issue).

With those and other similar activities completed, Tobiason’s foundation was ready for a new project. “When I saw the article about tiny homes for homeless vets,” he said, “I thought we should try to do something similar.”

Tobiason went to Kansas City and learned about the requirements, costs, and barriers to building an operational tiny-home facility for transitioning homeless veterans into permanent housing. Back home, his Bend Heroes Foundation joined with another nonprofit, Central Oregon Veterans Outreach. Together they began the long process of lobbying local agencies, holding presentations for city and county officials, fundraising, and selling city and county leaders on the necessity — and achievability — of a transitional tiny homes facility for homeless veterans.

The Path Forward

With an estimated 20,000 homeless vets living on the nation’s streets every day, VA Secretary Denis McDonough has referred to veteran homelessness as “a confounding stain on America’s promise.” The problem has long been a formidable challenge, fueled by a tangled array of social, economic, educational, and medical factors that created and have perpetuated homelessness among veterans. While working on individual factors has helped, many years of limited success in reducing veteran homelessness has shown that substantive remedies demand multifaceted efforts, long-term commitments, public-private partnerships, and major financial support.

The VA has made significant efforts to meet the needs presented by veteran homelessness through a diverse range of programs. Health Care for Homeless Veterans, for example, includes initiatives that help homeless vets move into reliable short-term living arrangements for up to 90 days; transitional housing that targets chronically homeless veterans battling mental illness and substance abuse with 20 programs and more than 400 beds nationwide; and a grants program that helps fund construction or renovation of transitional housing.

In public statements, McDonough has emphasized the VA’s intent to “supercharge” its efforts and maintain a highly proactive stance in confronting veteran homelessness.

“It’s true that VA has poured an extraordinary amount of money into this issue,” said Sandy Miller, the longtime chair of VVA’s Homeless Veterans Committee. “And VA is to be commended for that. But is VA doing everything it needs to do? No.”

Still, Miller noted that help for homeless veterans is much better than it once was, and the many local initiatives in play — including the innovative tiny homes alternative — are an important path forward.

Very small houses — tiny homes — represent an architectural trend that has grown more popular during the last 20 years. The rising costs of conventional houses, coupled with demographic shifts in American life, have sharply increased interest in housing alternatives, driving an entire movement centered around tiny homes. There are now magazines dedicated wholly to tiny homes, from design and construction to lifestyle alternatives, and at last count no less than eight TV shows about tiny houses.

Even the prestigious magazine Architectural Digest has featured tiny homes, calling them “an up-and-coming building type that proves good things can come in little packages.”

Tiny home communities for homeless veterans have cropped up nationwide. Veterans villages now include Operation Safe Haven in Franklinville, New Jersey, and facilities in Shelbyville, Kentucky; Kirbyville, Texas; and Orting, Washington.

Demonstrating the growing awareness and popularity of the tiny home concept for homeless vets, the actor and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger donated $250,000 in late 2021 for the construction of 25 tiny homes on the grounds of the West Los Angeles VA campus. They will be used to house veterans who had been living in tents stretched along the campus’ fence line. The idea has spread to Canada, where the province of Ontario has committed $2 million to building tiny home communities for homeless veterans.

Meanwhile, the Veterans Community Project in Kansas City — the inspiration for Dick Tobiason’s efforts in Bend, Oregon — is projecting new VCP-affiliated tiny home communities in eight cities by the end of 2022.

Running With the Concept

The burgeoning national interest in the tiny home alternative for veterans has spurred congressional support. The Tiny Homes for Homeless Veterans Act of 2021 was introduced at the end of last year by Reps. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) and Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.).

The legislation seeks to establish a six-year VA pilot program that will provide grants totaling $10 million annually to build tiny home villages for homeless veterans. The villages would include support services beyond housing, facilitating veterans’ access to resources such as job training, counseling, financial management, and educational opportunities.

The Act would also require the VA to improve tracking outcomes of veterans experiencing homelessness, a critical factor for the VVA Homeless Veterans Committee’s push for more and better data about existing tiny home communities and the costs of building them — particularly in metro areas with large populations of homeless veterans where demand for housing and services is greater and expenses tend to outpace smaller towns.

“With information from the VA we can see where the tiny homes communities are in the country and where we still need them,” Miller said. “A needs estimate can help us pinpoint areas that would be well-served by such a community for homeless vets.”

But then, Miller said, “We hit the next step: the small towns out there that would benefit with tiny home communities for their homeless vets, but have no idea about how to establish them.”

In addition to a lack of knowledge about how to launch a tiny homes project, another key factor is finding the money to do so. The average cost of a very basic, 240-square-foot tiny home is $10,000, an amount that can be intimidating, particularly in cities with limited public and private resources.

“Building even a few homes will run up a significant price tag,” Miller said, but she also noted that several towns and cities, including in less-wealthy areas, have succeeded in establishing tiny homes for their homeless vets. “There are clearly ways to go about this. We can tap the experience of others who’ve done it and build a roadmap.”

Once Miller has all the data to fully understand tiny homes as an option to address veteran homelessness, she plans to put together a white paper with recommendations for VVA action. The paper will also provide information to chapters and state councils about launching these programs.

“We’re actively reaching out to state council presidents and encouraging them to join the HVC,” she said. “Their participation can tell us what challenges they’re facing in their communities and what resources they can bring to the table. And, of course, our hope is that they will be interested in running with the tiny home concept in their local areas.”

Dick Tobiason’s Bend Heroes Foundation, in collaboration with COVO, negotiated land and financial assistance commitments with the city, county, and state, including a land donation of 1.5 acres, $450,000 in cash, and the waiver of some fees. With private donations from businesses and individuals ranging between $100 and $100,000 (with each tiny home underwritten by individuals), the project raised $1.2 million.

Each of the tiny homes includes a bathroom, bed, closet, and table and chairs. In addition to housing, the village features a community building with case management offices, a kitchen and dining area, laundry, restrooms, and showers.

“All of the expertise and hands-on work was donated,” Tobiason said. “An architect, local builders, and contractors contributing time and skills. All interior furnishings were also donated. Youth groups and high school students offered services and labor and had a great learning experience along the way as they were supervised by master carpenters. And it was all in the service of homeless vets.”

The Central Oregon Veterans Village was dedicated on Veterans Day in 2021. Currently housing 10 veterans (including one Vietnam War veteran), the residents commit to a two-year occupancy, during which time they work with case managers to come up with personalized action plans to facilitate their transition to permanent housing.

“Homelessness among veterans has long been an issue in this country,” Miller said. “And, despite all the many other priorities the nation faces, it’s long past time that public agencies and government organizations put their money where their mouths are.”

With the VA paying attention and new legislation in the congressional pipeline, that might be finally happening. Along with the dynamic grassroots efforts of concerned veterans and others throughout the nation, tiny homes as a fresh and inventive solution for veterans experiencing homelessness is clearly an idea whose time has come.




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