By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — It’s not that simple, but it is that basic.
Nobody can begin to work on any other problems they might have until they have a roof over their heads and a safe place to sleep.
“A safe place, a roof over their heads is a game-changer,” said Eric Verzola, Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph’s director of military veterans services.
“A veteran is a survivor. They learn how to get to the next day,” he said. “But if you are trying to keep yourself safe at night, everything else goes out the door.”
Verzola and the staff at St. Michael’s Veterans Center celebrated the first anniversary of the unique housing program for homeless veterans on June 30 by announcing Phase II.
By this fall, St. Michael’s will break ground to double the number of apartments for homeless military veterans to 118, plus add a 7,000 square foot service center to provide counseling, medical examinations and other services to veterans in need, whether they are residents of St. Michael’s or not.
A year old, the center which sits just south of the Veteran’s Administration hospital on Kansas City’s east side is already a major success.
Or as one military veteran resident put it who had been homeless for five years: “I need this place like I need water.”
“This place has made a world of difference,” said Bill Ingram, an Americorps peer navigator who served in the Marine Corps.
“I can help them get registered at the VA, I can assist them on their disability benefits,” Ingram said. “They can’t do that if they are homeless. This place keeps them from being homeless. It gives them security.”
Verzola, an Army veteran, said that of the 60 residents who occupied the first 58 rooms the moment that the center opened a year earlier, two have already stabilized their lives enough with new jobs that they have been able to move out.
“One of them moved up into his own place, and opened a room for another veteran,” Verzola said.
Christina Taylor, site services coordinator, said that 55 of the 60 first residents have been stable for the last 12 months, and receiving services to return to productive lives.
Taylor, an Army veteran, said it is important that those services are delivered to veterans by veterans.
“We all have skin in the game, and this problem (homelessness among military veterans) affects us very much,” she said.
“I see these guys, and these are the guys I worked with — blood, sweat and tears,” she said. “You are a family.”
On any given night, there can be as many as 1,400 former military veterans in Kansas City alone, sleeping under bridges, on park benches, or wherever else they can find.
Verzola said that statistically, a military veteran is 2.5 times more likely to be homeless than the general population.
That is a huge issue that is just now being addressed nationwide, and places like Kansas City’s St. Michael’s Center is at the cutting edge, Ingram added.
“The military is starting to recognize that veterans do have issues, and they are finally doing something about it rather than sweeping it under the rug,” Ingram said.
“This is not free, transitional housing. They pay rent. But they are surrounded here by their brothers and sisters of the military,” he said.
Ingram also said that Kansas City is getting a reputation as the place to come to for veterans needing help.
“I’ve been in several areas of the country,” he said. “Catholic Charities is trying to end homelessness for everybody, but to end it for veterans would be huge. If you are disabled, or a veteran and homeless, there is more help here in the Kansas City area than anywhere else.”