Leo Morris served in the Air Force. Karen Carter patrolled with the Coast Guard. Henry Owens enlisted in the Navy.
These veterans all served their country. They’ve also shared another experience: homelessness.
“You feel a sense of desperation, loneliness,” said Owens, who was homeless for eight years. “I had no hope.”
Today, they have another common bond: They are neighbors. Each one lives in a tiny home in the Veterans’ Village in Kansas City, Missouri — run by the Veterans Community Project.
The nonprofit is the vision of a group of young veterans led by former US Army Corporal Chris Stout.
After being wounded in Afghanistan in 2005 and returning home, Stout struggled with his injury and PTSD. He enjoyed being around veterans and got a job connecting vets to services they needed. But he was frustrated by the gaps and inefficiencies he saw. At times, Stout used his own money to put homeless veterans up in hotel rooms.
In 2015, he and a few buddies quit their jobs and started their organization.
“We are the place that says ‘yes’ first and figures everything else out later,” Stout said. “We serve anybody who’s ever raised their hand to defend our Constitution.”
Stout found that many homeless veterans didn’t like traditional shelters because they were unsafe or lacked privacy. When he learned about tiny homes, he quickly realized that a cluster of them made a lot of sense.
“It provides everything these guys need to live with dignity, safely, and then fix what got them there in the first place,” he said.
The first 13 homes opened in January, and 13 more will be finished this November. The houses come complete with furniture, kitchen supplies, linens, toiletries, food and even gift baskets of coffee and cookies.
The group’s outreach center assists residents as well as any local veteran with a variety of issues.
“Tiny houses are the sexy piece,” Stout said. “But the meat and potatoes of what we do is connecting them to the services. … We’re a one-stop shop for all things veteran.”
The Veterans Village itself provides valuable support: camaraderie.
“It’s very much like the barracks lifestyle,” Stout said. “They’re taking care of each other.”
Since he moved in this summer, Owens has gone back to school and has started a lawn care business. He says the support has changed his life.
“Now I have hope,” he said. “It makes me love my country again.”
CNN’s Kathleen Toner spoke with Stout about his work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.
CNN: How long are veterans able to stay in the tiny homes?
Chris Stout: Our anticipated length of stay is six months, but as long as they’re working towards their goals, they’re welcome to stay. We see these tiny homes as an educational tool to teach them how to maintain a home, cook for themselves and live next to neighbors. So far, eight of the original 13 residents have moved into permanent housing. They take their furniture with them, so it takes about 72 hours to prepare a home for the next resident.
In addition to the 13 homes that will open in November, another 23 are set to be finished after the first of the year, so that’ll be 49 houses all together. We’ll also have a community center providing medical, dental, barbershop, veterinarian care, as well as a fellowship hall, so we can have group events.
CNN: The tiny homes are for homeless veterans. What assistance does your group offer other veterans?
Stout: One of our flagship programs is our free bus passes for all veterans. We partnered with the local transit authority and they’ve given out more than a million rides in less than a year.
When any veteran walks in the door they can get their bus pass, housing placement, job placement, legal services, food pantry, clothing closet and emergency financial assistance. We like to have them say, “What do you provide?” That way we can ask them “What do you need?” And then we can start being the connectors. So far, we have helped more than 8,000 veterans.
CNN: What role does the community play in your work?
Stout: We’re called the Veterans Community Project because we are the community’s project. We want people to feel like they have ownership in this, and we want everybody to pitch in. When the veterans see all these volunteers show up, they’ll say, “Why are they here?” And we explain, “They’re grateful.”
The really cool part is that we’ve been reached out to by more than 650-plus communities. We’re working in Denver, Nashville and St. Louis. Our goal is to be in every major city moving forward.
CNN: You gave up a lot to do this work.
Stout: I gave up my job, mortgaged my house, spent my life savings — worried my wife to death! But I get to work with a group of people that I can relate to. They’re my friends. When I see a win for them, that’s huge. It’s a celebration for me. That’s what gets me going every day.
We all went through basic. We all served. This is just my way to serve them.