Ending veteran homelessness in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, may take a village. Perhaps one filled with tiny houses, dedicated staff and eager volunteers from the community.
“We have five houses coming up behind us here,” Eric Gage, Veterans Community Project of Sioux Falls executive director, said back in February. “They’re putting up siding and trimming out the windows and all kinds of stuff today.”
Gage says the project has come a long way since construction began a year and a half ago.
“We’re just really excited about the partnership that Sanford Health has provided,” Gage said. “Not only did you guys donate to help build this but you’re putting a little sweat equity behind it too and it’s real exciting to see that.”
Vet homelessness ‘doesn’t seem right to me’
That elbow grease is made up of volunteers from Sanford USD Medical Center.
“It’s going to get noisy,” Jim Harsma, Sanford power plant technician, said as he powered up a saw.
“I’m involved with the veterans committee over at Sanford. They had this come up and they were looking for volunteers and I have some construction experience in my past. Figured it would be a good thing to do on a Friday afternoon.”
A Friday during a chilly winter.
“When we first set up the date it was supposed to be a little warmer than this. But that’s OK. We’ll work through it,” Harsma said.
He’s fighting through frigid temps for his fellow vets. Harsma spent 12 years in the Navy.
“I was a machinist mate on submarines. Power generation, making steam, you know, kind of what I do at Sanford. Just underwater,” Harsma jokes.
Now, he’s propelling VCP forward.
“I think it’s incredible,” Harsma said about VCP’s mission. “The veterans, I don’t care if they were in for two years or 15, they made the sacrifice and now they’re living on the street. That just doesn’t seem right to me,” Harsma said.
Support a part of community outreach
Five homes are now move-in ready in the fall of 2023 with five more underway.
“We love it when we have the Sanford Health crew out. Not only are they highly motivated but there’s a few of them that have some pretty amazing carpentry skills. As you can see they’re looking pretty confident up there on those scaffolding with that nail gun,” Gage said in late September.
Sanford head of military and veteran affairs Paul Weckman says supporting VCP fills one of his department’s buckets.
“Sanford is a sponsor of this because one of the three things that we focus on is community and community outreach,” Weckman said.
The other two include being a provider and employer of choice for veterans.
“I think that will help them build a little bit of their self-esteem,” Weckman said about homeless veterans finding a place to stay. “They will have an opportunity to maybe refocus in their lives.”
Sanford volunteers, such as Riley Theel, plan to keep pouring in until 25 homes and a village center are nailed down.
“They protect our country and those that have served. I have a whole new respect for them,” said Theel, a director at Sanford USD Medical Center.
The chair of the hospital’s veterans committee, Theel’s reverence for service members comes from his grandpa who served in the Army.
“If they have PTSD from when they served, to be able to see footsteps under the door it’s something that makes them feel more safe,” Theel said, pointing out the design strategy behind the tiny homes.
“The bed is always in the corner of the room. There’s no windows in that corner for a reason. They can always see every side of the house. So little things like that I would have never known unless we came out here to help support this cause.”
‘New start’ for new residents
It’s just the beginning at VCP of Sioux Falls. Recently, three veterans opened the door to their first homes in many years.
“Those three individuals, this is a new start for them. This is a new phase of life. Some of them have been on the street a long time. Our ability to break that cycle and help them move on to their next phase of life of success is very exciting for us,” Gage said.
“We’re one of many communities that want this but one of only three that are in active construction.”
Fundraising for the next phase of development is underway. VCP of Sioux Falls was selected for the Sioux Empire Chamber of Commerce Community Appeals Process.
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