Easing the Path to Civilian Life
REALTOR® and naval officer Mark Solomon is on a mission to create “housing with dignity” to end veteran homelessness.
August 28, 2019
Five years ago, on any given night, about 200 homeless vets were sleeping on the streets in Kansas City, Mo. Even one was too many for real estate pro and Navy veteran Mark Solomon. In his mind, the military saying “Leave no man behind” applied just as urgently to vets far removed from the combat field as to those on active duty.
Solomon served in Baghdad from 2007 to 2008 and has been a naval intelligence officer in the reserves for 15 years. Recalling the oath soldiers take to defend the country, with their own life when necessary, Solomon says, “we must ensure that we serve those who were willing to give everything to defend their country.”
Over a lunch in 2014, Solomon and four other combat veterans—Chris Stout, Bryan Meyer, Kevin Jamison, and Brandonn Mixon—were talking about the difficulties veterans face in accessing financial and health services. Solomon scribbled an idea on a napkin—a blueprint of what would become the Veterans Community Project. One part of his vision involved the creation of a “tiny home” village providing temporary homes for homeless vets. In addition, the project would connect any vet—regardless of their duration or outcome of military service—to services they needed, from free bus passes to treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction, and other health issues.
Today, that “tiny” idea has bloomed into a multimillion-dollar charity, 100% privately funded, with 16 full-time employees. “Some vets go from high school to the barracks and then to war. Everything had been provided for them, but then they’re injured and find themselves a house payment away from living on the streets,” Solomon says. “There’s no good mechanism for helping transition from the military to civilian life. We want to end that frustrating maze.”
Since its formal launch in 2018, the Veterans Community Project has assisted more than 4,000 vets in multiple ways and virtually ended veteran homelessness in Kansas City. They’ve also fielded inquiries from more than 600 cities about how to replicate VCP.
Solomon, who serves on the VCP board, has been integral to its growth. He helped secure land, advocated for zoning changes, and coordinated fundraising efforts while enlisting community involvement. “Mark provides steady guidance and leadership as a board member,” says Meyer, VCP’s CEO and cofounder. “His real estate background consistently comes into play.”
‘Housing With Dignity’
VCP has captured national headlines for its tiny-home village in Kansas City. By November, 49 homes will be available for vets. (As of August, 26 were completed.) Also in November, a 5,000-square-foot community center will offer onsite services; this is in addition to the walk-in services the organization already provides remotely.
The village's standalone homes, ranging in size from 240 to 320 square feet, feature a full kitchen, bathroom, and living space, outfitted with hardwood floors, granite countertops, and an American flag displayed on each door. Vets can stay free of charge for up to two years and maintain their homeless status so they can remain eligible to transition into long-term services through the Department of Veterans Affairs or other programs.
Solomon never wanted the village to be a row of identical tiny homes, That’s why the houses have brightly colored exteriors with varied roof pitches. “These are ‘houses with dignity’ that hopefully change how we respond to homelessness,” says Solomon. The village is situated on a formerly vacant five-acre parcel of land, which VCP purchased in 2016 for $500 through a city land bank. Today, the property’s estimated value is $1.5 million.
“Everyone is quick to say ‘thanks for your service’ and clap at ball games for veterans. But we can do more than just say ‘thank you.’”—Mark Solomon
“We want to show you can even raise property values while helping the homeless,” Solomon says. He’s proving it again with the second VCP village slated to break ground this fall in Longmont, Colo. Solomon recently relocated to the Denver area to grow VCP and expand his real estate business. A developer donated land to build 25 tiny homes and a community center for homeless veterans at the front of a mountain-view subdivision, with homes priced from $400,000 to $900,000. “We changed the narrative about homelessness in Kansas City,” Solomon says. “We have a chance to do it again.”
A Branch of Service
VCP is much more than a housing development. Every vet who comes to the organization is assigned a caseworker to address individual needs, including unemployment, addiction, and health care as well as housing.
VCP’s walk-in services are having a lasting impact, says Army veteran Jason Kander, Missouri’s former Secretary of State, who was also a VCP client. Kander abruptly dropped out of the Kansas City mayoral race in 2018, announcing he was seeking treatment for PTSD stemming from his Afghanistan deployment 12 years prior.
“I’m in an advantageous position—I have political influence and government experience,” Kander says. “Yet when I went to the VA for help, I found the process discouraging and difficult to navigate.” Kander found help at VCP. “They expedited the process to get me enrolled and connected to the services I needed,” he says. Nearly a year later, Kander is leading the national expansion of VCP, alongside Solomon and others. “Mark is very passionate about helping vets,” Kander says. “His knowledge about all the benefits and processes available is invaluable.”
Paying It Forward
Community is at the heart of VCP. “Everyone is quick to say ‘thanks for your service’ and clap at ball games for vets,” Solomon says. “But we can do more. We called it Veterans Community Project for a reason. Community is in the middle because we can’t do it without that. We connect the veterans with the community, and we connect the community with the veterans.”
Community volunteers have helped in a wide variety of ways. They’ve constructed tiny homes. They’ve helped fundraise--one 14-year-old boy asked family and friends to contribute to VCP for his birthday. The local Lakeview Middle School collected supplies. Local professionals have taught vets about budgeting.
“We believed if we got the community’s support, we could get something done,” Solomon says. “I’m amazed at where this idea has gone five years later, and just from some idea on a restaurant napkin. We’re ending vet homelessness in Kansas City, and we’re going to do it elsewhere, too.”