Village of tiny homes to help Sioux Falls battle veteran homelessness
This story is part of an episode of South Dakota Focus that aired Thursday, April 27, 2023.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2022 count says there are 40 homeless veterans in South Dakota. Homeless counts often fall short of reality, and different organizations use different qualifications to reach their estimates–but there are service members in our communities who are falling through the cracks.
Combat veterans who want to close those gaps founded the Veterans Community Project. Bringing the number of unhouse veterans to zero takes a village--or in this case, a village of tiny homes.
We first toured the undeveloped property in central Sioux Falls with Eric Gage last year. He’s the executive director of The Veterans Community Project Sioux Falls, which is constructing a village of tiny homes to serve as transitional housing for homeless veterans. It’s an expansion of a project founded by combat veterans in Kansas City, Missouri.
For Gage, this project is part of a personal mission. He’s from the Sioux Falls area and joined the Air National Guard after high school. He was in basic training on September 11, 2001, and spent the next 12 years serving stateside and overseas. Gage found a place with the Veterans Club at the University of South Dakota that eventually led to a job with Student Veterans of America in Washington D.C.
“During that time, I came across a lot of very high functioning individuals–people who were at the top of their game, you know. They’d gotten into really good schools after the military and were thriving in the classroom, but even amongst that population there were still some that had those friends or even their own personal experiences where they had struggles,” says Gage. “They either didn’t qualify for some VA benefits or, because of their time in the military had some underlying issues that they hadn’t yet dealt with. So even amongst this population that on the surface level was doing very well, there was some of these underlying issues that need to be worked on on the personal level.”
Gage eventually moved back to South Dakota with his wife and young son. He happened to catch a presentation from one of the founders of the Veterans Community Project—Vincent Morales. Gage introduced himself.
“And a little while later, the job opening popped up and Vinnie’s like, ‘Hey man, something came up. You should probably apply for that.’”
It turns out The Veteran Community project had also caught the attention of Sioux Falls city leaders. They courted the organization to choose this city for an expansion site–and left no room for doubt of the city’s commitment. The way Gage explains it, the city anticipated questions about zoning and land by ensuring the people involved in those decisions were ready to respond.
“Not only was there a champion in city government, but the city government itself took the initiative to put all the right players in the room for the meeting and overcame every obstacle that came up,” says Gage. “It got to a point where Kansas City was like, ‘Oh, well, Sioux Falls makes sense.’”
These projects don’t always get a positive reception from neighbors, though. Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken said as much at the groundbreaking last June.
“I’ll tell you, one of the problems we have with housing right now is the attitude of ‘not in my backyard.’ You want to put affordable housing, accessible housing, workforce housing–everybody wants it, no one wants it near them,” he said.
This project was a different story. Eric Gage says there was no opposition to the Veterans Community Project development during the public rezoning process.
“This land being in the middle of this neighborhood here, being undeveloped, has kind of been attracting…not good uses,” he says, saying neighbors report seeing teenagers and others coming and going from the wooded area. But as Gage’s team began to survey the site, they made another discovery: people were already using this piece of land tucked behind a ridge and surrounded by trees as a discreet place for shelter. While we walk through the forested area on an afternoon last summer, Gage pointed to the remnants of a homeless encampment.
“Over here, this is a collapsed tent that presumably somebody was living in. There’s also some bike parts, abandoned bikes. Some furniture over here. There’s a mattress. The mattress used to have, like, construction plastic draped over it between the trees. There’s also some chairs. There’s a baby playpen, which is quite sad to see…”
Discarded cans of food…and cans of beer litter the site. Maybe from partying teenagers, maybe not. Gage says one neighbor told him he has cleaned up drug paraphernalia from the area so his grandkids won’t happen upon it while playing in the area.
“It looked like people were camping back in here last year,” says Gage. “It doesn’t look like anybody’s really touched it since the spring, but you know, it’s kind of…kind of interesting how we’re taking this land that has had folks, homeless folks living on it, to build it to be a village for homeless veterans.”
Construction crews started clearing the grove that same afternoon, and in the past nine months, the site has transformed. Even with weather-related delays and supply shortages, the Veteran Community Project in Sioux Falls is catching up with the two other sites under construction. A big step in the process came late last year, when Harrisburg High School students got involved. The school’s Home Builders Academy built frames for the first few houses.
The Veterans Community Project model relies heavily on community volunteers and donations. The Sioux Falls team hopes to welcome those first residents later this year. Factors like weather, funds, and supplies all make a difference, but once the houses are ready, this project has partnerships already planned with other city services to connect with veterans.
“After a person is identified, they meet with their case manager and their case manager works one-on-one with them to ID What they need to be successful,” Gage explains. “What brought them to this point in life? What are those demons that they need to overcome? What are the things they need to be successful? And what is success to them? Where do they want to be at the end of this?”
Gage says the average VCP resident stays in the village between 10 and 14 months, with an 85% success rate. “And those are numbers that people that work in transitional housing programs almost don’t believe because they’re so preferable,” he says.
The Veterans Community Project doesn’t accept federal funding. That frees it to serve veterans who may not qualify for services through the VA. Of course, that also means the organization relies on consistent community support. There are ongoing volunteer opportunities to construct, paint, and furnish the homes, among other possibilities.
“Our mission is veterans housing veterans, armed with the support of the community,” says Gage. “And we want the community to be part of this. Arm us to do what we do and join our mission.”