By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — It’s not another shelter for the homeless.
“It’s been a dream of mine for a long time,” said Art Fillmore, Kansas City attorney and the city’s best friend to homeless military veterans.
If all goes smoothly, Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph — which receives funding from the Bishop’s Annual Appeal and the Bishop Boland Institute for Housing and Community Development through a new corporation, St. Michael Veteran’s Center, Inc. — will be breaking ground sometime in 2012 on what should be its most ambitious project yet.
St. Michael’s Center for Veterans, to be located on 22 acres near the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Kansas City, will provide “one-stop” services to turn homeless veterans back into productive members of society.
The idea began four years ago when Charities’ CEO Mike Halterman was approached by an official with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to provide planning and seed money for construction of a pilot permanent housing project for homeless veterans, similar to the 10 rent-assisted apartment buildings Charities has launched in partnership with the Department of Housing and Urban Development for the elderly and handicapped throughout the diocese.
“I turned it down,” Halterman said — not because the job was too big, but because it was too small.
“It was just housing with no services,” he said. “I knew it wasn’t going to work without services.”
Halterman didn’t forget about the idea, though. Instead, he began building partnerships and seeking land that would not only provide the housing, but also the counseling, job training, medical and case management services that this very special clientele would need.
“This will be a one-stop comprehensive campus for homeless veterans,” Halterman said as he looked over plans that have already been drawn up.
The land on which St. Michael’s Center — believed to be the first of its kind anywhere in the United States — will be located is within walking distance of the VA Hospital and is now vacant and in receivership, Halterman said.
There are still hoops to jump through, approvals needed, paperwork to be filed, permits to be issued, and Congressional approval to be won for the federal funding portion of the project.
But four years into it, Halterman is confident enough to say it’s going to get done.
One of the first persons he turned to for help was Fillmore, founder of Heart of America Stand Down Foundation, a non-profit that annually hosts a three-day event specifically for veterans living out on the streets.
Fillmore said he knows through his three-day Stand Down events, which provide such basic things needed to restore dignity as hot meals, clean clothes and a shower, that not all homeless veterans can be saved. But some of them can.
Take “Pappy” for example.
“That was his street name,” Fillmore said. “He was probably the most filthy, foul smelling, vile human being you could meet. That was his defense mechanism.”
Pappy came two straight years to Stand Down. The second year, Fillmore decided to help him clean up. First he was hosed down in the summer heat, then given a shower, a haircut and a shave.
“At the end of the third day, he was standing up straight,” Fillmore said. “He got his dignity back.”
Then a few months later, Fillmore was walking to his downtown Kansas City office when a clean-shaven man in new work clothes and a new Ford F-150 honked his horn at him.
“He said, ‘You remember me?’ I said, ‘Pappy? Is that you?’ He said, ‘I’m not Pappy any more. I’m Mike. I got sober and I got my electrical contracting business back.’”
Those are the successes Fillmore doesn’t see, but knows that St. Michael’s Center will have.
“If they are really serious about getting their lives back on track, then we don’t see them any more” at Stand Down, Fillmore said.
Fillmore knows first-hand particularly how difficult the transition to civilian life can be, especially for a veteran who has seen combat.
Right out of college, Fillmore served as a “forward observer” artillery officer in the U.S. Army, directing strikes against targets along the Cambodian border during the Vietnam War.
He was able to enroll in law school and earn his degree after that experience — but not without experiencing a recurring nightmare common to Vietnam veterans.
“It’s even called the Vietnam vet’s nightmare,” he said. “You dream that you are in a firefight and your M-16 (rifle) doesn’t work. This was partially because the M-16 did jam a lot, but also because psychologically we were so emasculated about what we could and could not do in our rules of engagement.”
Not long after his tour and his discharge, Fillmore said he went to a University of Missouri football game with some old friends. When the Tigers scored a touchdown and the ceremonial cannon was fired, Fillmore dove under the seats instinctively. Later that night, explaining at a post-game party that he was in combat, someone asked him if he had killed any women and children.
“I decided then not to talk about the war again,” Fillmore said.
He earned admission to law school, financed by the G.I. Bill of Rights, and then was amused at his fellow first-year students and all the pressure they felt.
“I just figured that I had a roof over my head and nobody was shooting at me. I was just fine,” he said with a laugh.
Fillmore is having a very successful life and career, but knows full well that but for the grace of God . . .
And that’s why he formed Stand Down in Kansas City, after re-connecting with Robert Van Keuren, a patrol boat commander who served in the same area of Cambodia and Vietnam at the same time Fillmore did. Van Keuren invited him to spend the Stand Down weekend in San Diego, where Van Keuren found his own way out of alcoholism and homelessness.
“I spent the weekend in tents with homeless vets,” Fillmore said. Then he returned to Kansas City and decided to do something about all the men and women he saw begging on the streets of Kansas City, knowing full well that some of them had served their country in combat, just like he did.
“There is a story behind every one of those faces,” Fillmore said. “They kept their part of the bargain with America, but America hasn’t kept its part.”
On any given night in Kansas City, some 1,600 homeless military veterans are sleeping on the city’s park benches or under bridges, both Fillmore and Halterman said. Those statistics come from the Department of Veterans Affairs, and Fillmore doesn’t doubt them for a second. In fact, he said, that number could be conservative.
Every year, Heart of American Stand Down attracts some 800 homeless veterans, suffering from a variety of disorders with post-traumatic stress disorder a common thread.
“We have five rules — no drugs, no alcohol, no stealing, no fighting, no exceptions,” Fillmore said. And then he watches miracles happen — like Pappy — as homeless veterans begin to understand that someone cares about them.
“We call Stand Down a hand up, not a hand out,” he said.
“They really do deserve this,” he said noting that the homeless veteran population includes Vietnam, Gulf War, and even Afghanistan and Iraq veterans.
Just knowing of the success of the three-day event, Fillmore said more lives can be turned around in a place that offers both permanent housing and support services.
“I know that what we’re doing at Stand Down is a Band-Aid,” he said. “To really help them be fully productive citizens again, we had to do permanent housing and services. Housing with services could mean the end of homelessness for a lot of these veterans. I know that if they had an apartment and a job, their lives would be different. But right now, there is no place doing that. St. Michael’s Center would be that place. There is nothing else like it.”
And that is exactly the point, Halterman said. It’s also what Catholic Charities is about.
“We are meeting a need,” Halterman said.
Even the name, St. Michael’s Center, is meant to honor the veteran’s service, he said.
“St. Michael the Archangel was the protector of heaven,” Halterman said.
“These men and women were the protectors of our country. They deserve to be able to have stable, viable lives. The goal is to get them out of homelessness.”