The issue of Veteran homelessness is very real, and very deeply felt among the Veteran community. In fact, 11 percent of the adult homeless population are Veterans — which is crazy, as Veterans make up only two percent of the United States as a whole.
But when it comes to actually addressing this issue, legislators don’t seem to know where to start. Do we fund more VA programs? Build more low-income or transitional housing? Simply throw money at the problem?
Brandonn Mixon, co-founder of Veterans Community Project, thinks he’s found an answer: Tiny houses.
Tiny Houses For Homeless Veterans
Veterans Community Project, dubbed “VCP” by Mixon, is a privately-funded nonprofit that helps the Veteran community in Kansas City, Missouri. They’re most known for their “VCP Village,” which consists of 49 tiny homes inhabited by Veterans.
At first glance, building tiny houses for homeless Veterans may seem like a “tiny” solution for a much bigger problem. So… why do it?
“I chose to go with tiny houses because they actually relate a lot more to a military lifestyle — you know, barracks, B-Huts, that stuff,” Mixon explained.
“You give them resources inside the tiny house – pots, paintings, beds – so when they move into the house it’s brand new. It’s a blank notebook. They get to be who they want to be, and when they transition out, they get to take all that stuff with them. But that’s the thought process behind the tiny house… we’re able to put them back in that military mentality, then break that down, and focus on the underlying issues.”
The homes are a far cry from a “typical” American lifestyle, and range between 240 to 320 square feet. Veterans are able to live there free of charge as they focus on getting back on their feet.
What living in the VCP Village does require is emotional labor. Really getting to the root of their problems, and then learning the practical skills to make it in the civilian world.
“If the individual is homeless due to money management issues, we will try to focus on those underlying money management issues or mental health issues, unlike all those other government programs who just kick them out after six months. They’re not catered to the individual’s needs or why they became homeless in the first place.”
What Factors Lead to Veteran Homelessness?
“Feeling alone… feeling like they got left behind… not knowing how to navigate the system of what comes next,” Mixon supplied.
And he isn’t guessing. While he’s never been homeless, Mixon is an Army Veteran who knows what it’s like to be left behind.
“I joined the military because I wanted to feel like I belonged to a family. Something bigger than myself. And when I got into the military I finally found that, and for once in my life I felt home.”
As a crew chief for the 82nd Airborne, Mixon spent his time serving on Black Hawk helicopters, and enjoyed every minute of it. But all of it came crashing down three months into his tour in Afghanistan.
“It was devastating… I wasn’t in some really cool accident or roadside bomb or whatever. Yeah I got shot at, yeah I did a lot of cool stuff like medivac, but my initial injury came from falling — how embarrassing is that?”
After suffering a traumatic brain injury (TBI), Mixon was medically discharged from the Army and sent back home to the States. He was forced to leave his buddies behind, as well as the only life he’d ever really felt comfortable with. It sent him into a dark spiral of depression.
“When I came home I felt like I got left behind. I felt like I was worthless. Not only was I not good enough for the military, but I wasn’t good enough for my buddies that I left in Afghanistan,” Mixon expressed.
“To be honest with you, I’ve never slept as good as when I was in Afghanistan. And I slept so good because somebody had my back. I loved Afghanistan, and it broke my heart that all these guys that were supposedly my best friends were the first ones to say, “You’re a faker, you’re a liar, you just want to go home.” That really, really hurt me.”
Mixon’s depression and feelings of worthlessness resulted in several suicide attempts.
“My last attempt at suicide, my wife caught me, and she said, “You need to go meet other Vets. You need to feel like you belong again.””
Finding a Purpose
“I went to an event and I ran into some Veterans, and a lot of them were smiling. I was trying to figure out… “Why are these guys smiling? I’ve been hating life, and I just want to die.” And talking to one of them, he said: “Man, I help Veterans, and that’s what gets me through every single day.””
From there, Mixon decided that he wanted a way to help Veterans too. He went to heating and cooling school and started doing free and low-cost heating and cooling work for Veterans in Kansas City. That was just the start.
“I had assumed that [all Veterans] qualified for [VA] services; but come to find out, a lot of them don’t. If you’re dishonorably discharged, if you’re a Reservist, if you’re National Guard… if you don’t serve a certain amount of time, they don’t claim you as a Veteran, and that absolutely broke my heart,” Mixon said.
He and some fellow Veterans decided they were going to provide Veteran services, and do it on their own terms: No limits on how long you’ve served, or how you were discharged. The mission is no Veteran left behind.
“I mean, think about all the Veterans getting out with a dishonorable discharge because maybe they had a drinking issue or a mental health issue. These are the men and women that are committing suicide every day – because they got left behind. That was part of our thinking when we created Veterans Community Project. We want to say yes to every Veteran that walks through our doors, and let them all know that we have their backs; we know what you’re going through — let’s do this together, let’s figure this out.”
Veterans Community Project
In addition to building tiny houses for homeless Veterans, VCP provides a lot of other free services to Veterans who need them. These include:
- Bus passes
- Food and hygiene kits
- Employment support
- Discharge upgrade services
- Military documentation services
- Counseling referrals
- Housing referrals
- Case management
“We’ve been able to give 2.1 million rides just because of the bus pass program,” Mixon said. “It’s led to numerous people getting jobs from something as simple as transportation.”
VCP is currently building a community center that will house a computer lab, medical office, dental office, barber, kitchen, veterinarian clinic, and more. Their goal is real, far-reaching community. And that’s also why they’re expanding.
“Currently we’re working our way into Florida, Colorado, St. Louis, Nashville, and we’re looking at LA. Our goal is to be operating in all those places by 2022. We will be up and running in five cities for sure,” Mixon commented.
How can you help VCP?
“Go to veteranscommunityproject.org. There’s a lot of ways to get involved, whether it’s volunteering, or giving a monetary donation, but the biggest thing is just support. If you need somebody to talk to — we’re here. We’re not going to leave somebody behind.”
Will Tiny Houses End Veteran Homelessness?
The short answer? No. There are a lot of factors that go into Veteran homelessness, and not all of them can be solved by tiny homes — no matter how cute or space-efficient.
One reason why so many Veterans are homeless is because they refuse to ask for help. It’s something that’s been drilled into them in the military: You’re weak if you ask for help. It’s something that needs to change.
Mixon himself was scared to ask for help, and scared to be vulnerable about his struggles with mental illness. Before he was recently featured on Netflix’s Queer Eye, he asked them not to air the episode.
“I was so worried about my so-called friends I served with in Afghanistan, and then everybody else. I was scared that they were going to look at me like I was the biggest loser in the world. But then I thought, if this changes or impacts even just one person, then it’s worth the episode.”
Because Mixon got help within his community, he was able to start VCP. Because of VCP, Veterans are being given hands-on assistance that is tailored to their needs and future success. They’re learning and believing that there is a future for them.
“Asking for help is what saved my life,” Mixon added. And it could save yours, too.
If you or a loved one is contemplating suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
You are not alone. You are loved. Stay strong.