Former Marine Emiloe Caldwell is a lover, not a fighter.
Around his neck he wears a string of beads that he was given at a therapy retreat through Veterans Community Project. Standing in the middle of his tiny home, he pulled off the necklace and pointed out the purple bead that represents him.
“I’m a lover, which means I like harmony and peace more than going at things the hard way,” Caldwell said. “Isn’t that crazy for a Marine?”
Just a few years ago, Caldwell was living on the streets. After returning from his service, Caldwell’s girlfriend broke off their relationship. That, coupled with a jarring return to civilian life, sent him into a downward spiral that ended with homelessness.
Five years into homelessness, he looked around at the jaded men twice his age and decided it was time to figure out how to get out of his situation. That was when a case worker from Veterans Community Project reached out.
“We’re here to radically change the paradigm of how people look at veteran homelessness,” said Sean Anderson, the lead case manager at Veterans Community Project.
VCP Village is a community of 49 tiny homes on 89th Street and Troost Avenue. The formerly homeless veterans living there aren’t just given a fully furnished tiny home, but a case manager and access to a litany of wraparound services. There is access to counseling, dental care, veterinary services for pets, financial literacy instruction and community building.
These tiny homes, ranging from 240 to 320 square feet, are offered as transitional housing for up to two years. The tiny home model is on the rise, and some housing advocates say it could help address homelessness more broadly in Kansas City.
Next to the village is the Veterans Outreach Center. Any veteran can walk in off the street and receive services such as hygiene kits, food, identification services, and mental and physical health referrals.
Veterans like Caldwell don’t have to pay a dime to live at the village, or for any of the services at the Outreach Center.
This allows them the time and space to heal from their trauma and get back on their feet. Caldwell, for example, has been holding down three jobs during his time at VCP. He also finds the time to pursue his passions in cosplay, voice acting and exercise.
The VCP Village considers all veterans regardless of discharge status, but the ones that end up in a tiny home are typically in the middle ground between just needing a month of rent, and needing extensive health and legal services.
A large obstacle is often substance abuse.
“A lot of times we use the village program as a carrot,” Anderson said. “I’ll say, ‘Hey, we’re really interested in having you, but we can’t have you quite yet. We can connect you with a treatment program, and once you get out of there we can have this conversation again.’”
A day in the life
Every veteran living at VCP has a different schedule. That’s actually one of Caldwell’s favorite parts about the program.
“You build your structure, and they enforce that structure,” he said. “But they don’t press you to do it. They treat you like an adult.”
Typically he wakes up around 4:30 a.m. to meditate and exercise. He heads to his job at Geico around 9:30 a.m., and by 4 p.m. he’s back at VCP either relaxing, working on voice acting, or getting ready to go to his security job at 18th and Vine.
During his down time at VCP Village, Caldwell chats with the other veterans and catches up with his case manager. Currently, they are working on getting Caldwell his own car so that he has a more reliable way to get to work. He’s also working on getting a housing voucher and is pursuing a few apartment options.
Caldwell feels his time at VCP Village coming to an end, and Anderson describes this as a bittersweet moment.
“He’s going to be one that we really hate to see go,” Anderson said. “Most of them are that way. It’s time to fly and get the hell out of here, but come back and see us.”
“Being here was an amazing thing,” Caldwell said. “Their help, God’s guidance, and me actually wanting to change helped save my life.”
This story is part of a series on housing issues in the Kansas City region produced by the KC Media Collective, an initiative designed to support and enhance local journalism. Members of the KC Media Collective include Kansas City PBS/Flatland, KCUR 89.3, Missouri Business Alert, Startland News, The Kansas City Beacon and American Public Square.