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Tony Messenger: Homeless veterans have a new option for shelter in St. Louis

St. Louis Post-Dispatch - 12/4/2023

Dec. 4—ST. LOUIS — A gentle rain fell as the man clad in a camouflage jacket walked his dog.

Behind him was a picturesque scene that could have come from the Jim Carrey movie "The Truman Show": homes of nearly identical style with wide sidewalks, flower beds and American flags flying from the porches.

But this wasn't a Hollywood snapshot of suburbia. It was on North Grand Boulevard, in the Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood. And the homes weren't standard size. They are tiny homes, no larger than 320 square feet.

Welcome to the Veterans Community Project, the newest entry in the battle against homelessness in St. Louis.

Last month, just before winter weather started in earnest, the first six units were opened. They couldn't have come at a better time. Homelessness among veterans is on the rise in the St. Louis region and across the nation. There were more than 1,000 known veterans who were homeless last year in Missouri and Illinois, with nearly 250 in the St. Louis region, according to the Veterans Administration's Hope Recovery Center.

The Veterans Community Project in St. Louis is the second such village in Missouri, with the first opening in Kansas City, where the nonprofit was formed. Similar villages are being built in Colorado, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Arizona.

In St. Louis, plans call for 50 tiny homes and a community center where veterans can meet with case managers and learn about services to escape the cycle of homelessness that brought them here in the first place.

"It's overwhelming to figure out what services are out there," says Rebecca Tallman, the executive director of the village. "Our goal is to be a hub, to connect people with the correct services they need."

The village reflects the challenges for people who find themselves on the streets, or in their cars, or couch-surfing with friends and family. Sometimes it's an eviction or a mental health crisis that spurs the need for shelter. For veterans, it's often a difficult transition from military life to civilian life. Many also struggle with trauma from serving in combat.

"You go from being a part of a family to not being one," says Tallman, a 20-year Air Force veteran. "All of a sudden, one day, you are no longer needed."

When it comes to homelessness, the folks who need emergency shelter often draw the most attention, particularly in the winter. But the Veterans Community Project is helping address another key part of the system: transitional housing. In the village, veterans can live for several months — or more than a year — as they work to secure medical care, mental health services, help for addiction or the resources to move into permanent housing.

Nearly half of the beds for unhoused people in the St. Louis region are in transitional housing, as compared to shelters. But there's a need for more in all parts of the system, from shelters to permanent housing, as well as more services to help keep people off the streets.

Like many nonprofits in this space, the Veterans Community Project is raising private money. It's about halfway to its capital campaign goal of $12.8 million for the St. Louis village.

On the day I visited, volunteers were busy in the outreach center organizing food and other donations, such as clothing and bedding. Some of those items are available to veterans who walk in from the street, even if they don't end up living at the village.

This is the type of hard work performed nearly every day to battle homelessness in the city and county. Dozens of churches, nonprofits and government agencies work to keep our neighbors off the street, or to feed and clothe them when they have nowhere else to go.

"Veterans are twice as likely as other population groups to end up homeless," Tallman says.

Some will end up at the Veterans Community Project, by themselves, or with dogs, or with an entire family. They will take the steps to end up back in a home.

"Each one of them has a different story," Tallman says, "a different path that gets them to that place."

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