Homeless veterans village in south Wichita on hold

The pandemic has stalled plans to create a campus of cottages and services in South Wichita for homeless veterans.

“We started with a pretty ambitious plan,” said Seth Brees, board member of the non-profit Passageways Ltd., Wichita. The vision garnered praise and pledges of donations and in-kind contributions.

A proposed development of passageways for vacant acres near Seneca and I-235 received unopposed approval from the District IV Advisory Board, the Wichita-Sedgwick County Metropolitan Area Planning Commission, and the Wichita City Council.

There is “massive community support for this,” planner David Yearout said at a 2019 MAPC meeting.

The first phase of the Homefront Veteran Neighborhood required at least 30 small one- and two-bedroom cottages. The campus would include a resource center, community center, chapel, memorial garden, storage facility, playgrounds, and service animal park.

“Then COVID hit and everything changed,” Brees said. Passageways and its partners experienced a rough economic surge.

“Everyone was in the same boat together,” Brees said.

“We had to return the land to the owner. We paid it in installments and just couldn’t imagine spending that money on land,” said Susan Moellinger, co-founder of Passageways.

“We put it on the back burner.”

But one part of the Homefront Veteran Neighborhood remained prominent: providing housing for homeless female veterans.

Female vets are now focusing on that

In recent years, Moellinger said she’s seen a “dramatic increase” in the number of female veterans coming to her for help. It caught her attention when female veterans turned up in the annual Wichita-Sedgwick County Point-in-Time Homeless Count, coordinated by United Way of the Plains and conducted in a single winter night.

There used to be no female veterans in the census. A few years ago there were four, Moellinger said. This year there were seven, she said, adding that she thinks the real number of homeless people is higher.

Some female veterans who serve in the same capacities as their male counterparts also return home with post-traumatic stress disorder. Women who have suffered military sexual trauma are at higher risk for PTSD, substance abuse and suicide.

Passageways’ immediate focus is to acquire and operate a home for homeless female veterans. It has owned and operated a residential home for homeless male veterans in Wichita for about five years.

Ideally, it would be a three- or four-bedroom ranch-style home that is accessible to people with disabilities and is on a large lot in West Wichita, Moellinger said. The Home for Male Veterans is located in a quiet area of ​​west Wichita, within walking distance to Sojourner’s Coffee House, which caters to military members and veterans.

Also on the west side is Passageways’ Outreach Center in Towne West Square. It takes donated furniture and household items, which in turn are given away or sold to veterans to raise money.

The men’s house has four bedrooms and can accommodate eight occupants – small enough that it didn’t trigger any special zoning. The house rules: No drugs or alcohol during the program, no weapons, no visitors, 9 p.m. curfew and attending a church service at least once a week.

“We encourage them to find their own church home,” Moellinger said.

Passageways is determined to preserve its faith-based roots. It’s also not keen on copying the Veterans Community Project Village in Kansas City, Mo., where tiny homes for veterans range from 240 to 320 square feet.

“We never talked about building a tiny home village,” Moellinger said. “It’s not good enough for our heroes,” she said, using Passageways’ word for veteran.

Homes in the Homefront Veteran Neighborhood would be 500 to 1,000 square feet, with stackable washers and dryers, kitchens, and a bathroom that doubles as a safe space, providing shelter during a tornado and a sanctuary from loud noises that could evoke haunting memories.

“It saved my life”

Part of the admissions process at the Male Veterans Home is determining the level of assistance they need. A mental health assessment is standard. An individual plan is developed for each resident.

Accommodation, subsistence, clothing, food and transportation are borne by Passageways and donors.

“I showed up and had nothing,” said Tom Walker, who was a homeless veteran when he joined Passageways a few years ago. “They didn’t have a huge set of rules,” he said.

Unlike some shelters, he didn’t have to go out during the day. He also didn’t have a deadline to move out.

“I was allowed to recover mentally,” Walker said. He said he has a disability and now lives in subsidized housing. Of Passageways, he said, “It saved my life.”

The longest anyone has stayed at the Passageways home has been about a year. A young man got a well-paying job straight away, Moellinger said, but he had a lot of debt. When he left, he was completely debt-free, she said.

“We want them to be successful in moving out.”

The 106th graduate of the Passageways home left in October. A graduate has achieved stability and can move into affordable housing. The Passageways Outreach Center ensures the veteran has a furnished home.

Retiree Ron Adame served in Vietnam and recalls eking out a living after returning from Vietnam. He is a volunteer driver for Passageways and provides his own vehicle and gasoline to take residents to and from work or appointments.

“They are all very grateful. They say thank you three or four times on a ride,” he said.

Brees said the military is not doing a very good job of preparing members to leave the service. Passageways describes his role as giving up a hand, not dealing it.

In addition to helping homeless women, Passageways aims to lift female veterans out of insecure living conditions and help them understand how to take care of themselves.

The Homefront Veterans Neighborhood would allow veterans and their children to live locally. But children are not allowed in either the Male Veterans Home or the Female Veterans Home.

Passageways has raised about $58,000 for the women’s shelter, less than a quarter of what is likely needed. If one is acquired that needs labor, several companies have offered to donate the labor, Moellinger said. The men’s house is almost paid off.

There is no set timeline for the Homefront Veteran Neighborhood Project to restart. The land remains zoned for development.

This article was produced as part of the Wichita Journalism Collaborative, a partnership between The Active Age and nine other local media organizations, including KMUW.
Contact Mary Clarkin and [email protected]

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