By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — Monday, June 30, dawned hot and sticky, but nobody at the St. Michael’s Veteran’s Center campus minded. It was the official grand opening of Phase I of the center — fully-equipped apartment homes with access to supportive services to meet the needs of homeless and at-risk veterans. Located near the Veterans Administration Hospital, eventually the campus will consist of three buildings providing housing for 180 veterans, and 10,000 square feet of office space to provide supportive services and case management focused on residents’ long-term success and better lives.
A standing-room-only crowd of veterans, clergy, Knights of Columbus, city officials and service providers joined the staffs of Catholic Charities and their development partner, Yarco Companies, in greeting the new facility.
Called to order by Eric Verzola, Catholic Charities Director of Veteran’s Affairs, those gathered stood for the entrance procession led by the Knights of Columbus Father Donnelly Council 566 Assembly, followed by Kansas City-St. Joseph Bishop Robert W. Finn and Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.
Following the Presentation of Colors led by an Honor Guard from the VFW Post 10906 (Gladstone), and the National Anthem sung by vocalist Michael McGlinn of St. Thomas More Parish, Verzola opened the ceremonies by saying, “Welcome to St. Michael’s Veteran’s Center, a place that veterans can call home.”
Kansas City Mayor Sly James reminded the assembly that statistics show “there are about 1,800 homeless veterans in the city. This work of Catholic Charities gives veterans not only a place to live but resources to give them strength, a community of their peers, medical, psychological and social services, proximity to shopping and, the VA Hospital, should they need it, is close by. They took care of us when they were in combat. Now we can take care of them.”
The concept of housing combined with services to help homeless veterans was the dream of Army veteran Art Fillmore, an attorney with Levi and Craig. About four years ago, he took his concerns for veterans and his dream to then-Catholic Charities CEO Mike Halterman. Catholic Charities picked up the idea and formed a board to explore and flesh out Fillmore’s dream. Many people and organizations collaborated to develop, finance and build Phase I of St. Michael’s Veteran’s Center, and make the dream a reality. As Fillmore said, “When people in uniform die, wherever they die, they aren’t singling out who they die for. It is our responsibility to take care of them, not singling out one or the other. This is important to our community and I hope we can count on everybody to stand behind our vets.”
In June 2011, the Economic Development Corporation of Kansas City selected the proposal from Yarco and Catholic Charities to build St. Michael’s Veterans Center on 24 acres of overgrown, blighted property near 39th Street and Leeds Trafficway in east Kansas City. The redevelopment process included approval by the Seven Oaks Urban Renewal Area and 10 years tax abatement for Phase I.
In January 2012, Catholic Charities and Yarco’s application for Low Income Housing Tax Credits for Phase I was approved. And in August 2013, U.S. Bank partnered with Catholic Charities and Yarco to provide more than $17.7 million in financing for Phase I. Tax credits subsidize the development’s cost, allowing veterans to rent the apartments at below-market rates.
Ground was broken for St. Michael’s Center Sept. 25, 2013 and, in January this year, funding for Phase II was received. Designed by Rosemann and Associates Architects, built by George Shaw Construction and managed by Yarco Companies, Phase I is complete; move-ins began July 7. Phase II construction is slated to begin early in 2015.
In his remarks, Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders said that “a building like this only comes into being through the vision of movers and shakers.” He acknowledged state representatives who provided tax incentives to help make it possible.
“St. Michael’s Veteran’s Center is one of a kind, the first in the country to provide permanent housing and ancillary services for veterans in one place,” he said.
Keynote speaker Lieutenant General John Miller, U.S. Army, Ret., said, “I stand before you as a man of faith and also a veteran. This is a place where both come together.”
Many willing faith and secular groups join Catholic Charities in providing services to veterans:
• Jewish Family Services —transportation, care and professional management programs
• Metropolitan Lutheran Ministry —GED education referrals, and job skill training through the Learning to Earning program
•Knights of Columbus —peer-to-peer counseling and an active corps of volunteers
• Wounded Warrior Project — supplemental support resources for post 9/11 veterans including peer support, economic empowerment, family support and combat stress recovery
• Legal Aid of Western Missouri — custom-designed legal aid based on the specific, assessed needs of residents
• Linwood Family YMCA — healthy living classes and hands-on instruction
• Manpower Group — resume writing, interview preparation, job availability and placement services
• Prosperity Center of Kansas City — employment services, financial education and coaching, as well as income support access
• Team Red, White and Blue — one-on-one physical training, group physical classes and opportunities to participate in community events
• U.S. Bank —financial literacy classes
• University of Missouri Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction — pairing with companion animals for stress reduction, support and physical activity
• V.A. Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment — higher education assistance and job placement for veterans with service-connected disabilities.
General Miller enlarged on the statistic indicating 1,800 homeless veterans in the Kansas City area saying that 12 percent of the U.S. population are veterans and I in 4 of them await eviction. “For veterans, ‘home’ is a powerful word,” he said, “a place of comfort, security and friends who share similar experiences (or are interested and care). Here, home is real, real in body, mind and soul. Everybody knows you’re home and is glad you’re here. It is a place where you can keep your things safe, provides fellowship and community and also space if you need it. It is a place you can trust and people you can trust, where you can relax with friends or spend time alone. St. Michael’s is the fulfillment of the promise generations of Americans made to servicemen and women: to serve and protect those who put their lives at risk to protect and serve their country. “
Bishop Finn and Archbishop Naumann, Mayor James, Mike Sanders, Mike Halterman and other guests joined Art Fillmore in cutting the ribbon to officially open St. Michael’s Veterans Center.
While the ribbon cutting group toured the building, Jonathon Cohn, CEO of the Yarco Companies, spoke of the “overwhelming, unmet need to provide housing and services to veterans.” Missouri is the 5th highest state in the nation when it comes to numbers of homeless vets, he said. “Today is the real public opening. Over the past months, 58 applications were received for the apartments. Thirty have been approved, 28 are in process and 14 are on the waiting list. All 58 apartments should be occupied in the next 30 days.”
He praised U.S. Bank for funding St. Michael’s and for employing about 2,000 veterans at their various locations, exemplifying their commitment to veterans.
Other speakers included Melba Curls, Councilwoman, Third District At- Large; Jermaine Reed, Councilman, Third District; Donovan Mouton, Board Chair, Housing Authority of Kansas City Mo., and Jennifer Tidwell, Regional Administrator U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development. The ceremonies were also attended by representatives of the Seven Oaks Neighborhood, which enthusiastically approved of St. Michael’s Veterans Center.
In closing, Archbishop Naumann applauded St. Michael’s Veteran’s Center, and “the vision and the dream to see what others couldn’t see,” — the growing numbers of disconnected, homeless veterans in the Kansas City area. The security of permanent homes and services to help veterans reintegrate into families and jobs, should “help all those who come here know how important they are to us,” he said.
Verzola said later, “This is not three hots and a cot. This is permanent housing and a family, whose members are the service providers and the veteran community. Vets could stay here the rest of their lives. We will give them all the time they need to get things right.”
A former career Army officer, Verzola knows first-hand what a veteran goes through. “Veterans face different challenges than non-vets. The biggest challenge is not being a soldier any more. It’s difficult to get back to what you were before.”
Dan McKenzie, 48, former Private First Class, U.S. Army, served in the Air Defense Artillery on the West German/Czechoslovakian border from 1984-86. When he returned home, he worked as a union carpenter in Joplin. As time passed, however, physical problems and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms began interfering with his job and relationships. He suffered several mini-strokes and is now totally disabled.
“It’s been a struggle. I won’t deny it,” he said. He and his wife, Karen, were living with a sister-in-law in her trailer, trying to get by, day-to-day.
He first heard about Catholic Charities through the Salvation Army. “They handed me an orange piece of paper which had the names of service providers in the Kansas City area. Right at the top of the list was Catholic Charities.”
Dan had been refused assistance from several faith-based charities because he was not of the denomination or a member of the local church, so he was skeptical. “I figured Catholic Charities would be the same. I’m not Catholic, I was raised Pentecostal, so I didn’t think they’d help me. I was wrong, thank God! They helped us right from the get-go. My caseworker told us about St. Michael’s and helped us apply for it. I was on pins and needles until we got the approval.”
Dan views the center as “a benefit all around.” He and Karen will have permanent place to call home, utilities are paid for and rent is affordable. “I’ll be around other vets, who’ve had some of the same experiences I had, and it’s a fresh start. I may even be able to do something special for my wife, which I haven’t been able to do for several years. Take her out to dinner or something. I am so looking forward to just moving in. I’m ecstatic!”
St. Michael’s Veteran’s Center is “the biggest gift I’ve ever had in my life,” Dan said. “Words can’t describe it, a breath of freedom, a new start, a life!”
Dan and Karen were scheduled to move at 9 a.m., July 7, into a furnished 1-bedroom apartment.
“At St. Michael’s, we’ll have a community,” Dan said, “we can share memories of the good ole days and we can look forward to the future. We can be proud of who we are.”
To learn more about Catholic Charities Services to Veterans, visit www.catholiccharitieskc-sj.org.