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Homeless veterans village in south Wichita on hold

passageways photo 1.jpg
The Active Age
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Despite the setback in developing veterans housing in south Wichita, Passageways continues to operate a residential home for homeless male veterans in west Wichita.

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

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

A Passageways Planned Unit Development for undeveloped acres near Seneca and I-235 won approval from the District IV Advisory Board, the Wichita-Sedgwick County Metropolitan Area Planning Commission and the Wichita City Council without a dissenting vote.

There’s a “massive amount of support within the community for this,” said planner David Yearout at a 2019 MAPC meeting.

The first phase of Homefront Veteran Neighborhood called for 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 wave.

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

“We had to give the land back to the owner. We were paying for it in installments, and we just couldn’t see spending that money on land,” said Susan Moellinger, co-founder of Passageways.

“We put it on the back burner.”

But one part of Homefront Veteran Neighborhood stayed on the front burner: providing housing for homeless female veterans.

Female vets now focus

Over the last several years, Moellinger said, she has seen “a dramatic increase” in the number of female veterans coming to them for assistance. It caught her attention when female veterans appeared in the annual Wichita-Sedgwick County Point-in-Time Homeless Count, coordinated by United Way of the Plains and carried out on a single night in the winter.

There used to be no female veterans in the count. A couple years ago there were four, Moellinger said. This year, there were seven, she said, adding that she thinks the actual homeless number is higher.

Serving in the same capacities as their male peers, some female veterans are returning home with post-traumatic stress disorder, too. Women who experienced military sexual trauma are more likely to be at 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 overseen a residential home for homeless male veterans in Wichita for about five years.

Ideally, it would be a ranch-style home, with three or four bedrooms, accessible for those with disabilities and located on a large lot in west Wichita, according to Moellinger. The home for male veterans is in a quiet neighborhood in west Wichita, within walking distance of Sojourner’s Coffee House, which reaches out 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 to veterans or sold to raise money.

The men’s house has four bedrooms and can house eight residents — small enough that it did not trigger special zoning. The house rules: No drugs or alcohol can be consumed while in the program, no weapons, no visitors, a 9 p.m. curfew and attendance at a religious service at least once a week.

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

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

“We have never, ever talked about doing a tiny home village,” Moellinger said. “That’s not good enough for our heroes,” she said, using Passageways’ word for veterans.

The homes in Homefront Veteran Neighborhood would be 500 to 1,000 square feet, with stackable washers and dryers, kitchens and a bathroom doubling as a safe room, providing protection during a tornado and a refuge from loud noises that could spark haunting memories.

‘It saved my life’

Part of the intake process at the home for male veterans is determining the range of help they need. A mental health evaluation is standard. An individual plan is developed for each resident.

Housing, living, clothing, food and transportation expenses are covered by Passageways and donors.

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

Unlike at some shelters, he wasn’t forced to leave during the daytime. He also didn’t face a deadline to move out.

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

The longest anyone has stayed in the Passageways’ home was about a year. A young man got a great paying job right off the bat, Moellinger said, but he had mounds of debt. When he left, he was completely debt free, she said.

“We want them to be successful when they move out.”

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

Retiree Ron Adame served in Vietnam and remembers eking out an existence when he first came back from Vietnam. He is a volunteer driver for Passageways, providing his own vehicle and gas to take residents to and from their jobs or to appointments.

“They’re all very appreciative. In one ride, they thank you three or four times,” he said.

Brees said the military does not do a very good job prepping members for leaving the service. Passageways describes its role as giving a hand up, not a hand out.

Besides helping females who are homeless, Passageways aims to get female veterans out of unsafe living conditions and help them understand how they can provide for themselves.

The Homefront Veteran Neighborhood would allow veterans and their children to live on site. But children aren’t allowed at the home for male veterans, nor will they be allowed at the home for female veterans.

Passageways has raised about $58,000 for the women’s house, less than a quarter of what it’ll probably need. If one is acquired that needs work, several companies have offered to donate the work, Moellinger said. The men’s house is nearly paid off.

There is no set timeline for restarting the Homefront Veteran Neighborhood project. The land remains zoned for the development.

This article was produced as part of the Wichita Journalism Collaborative, a partnership of The Active Age and nine other local media organizations, including KMUW.
Contact Mary Clarkin and mary.e.clarkin@gmail.com.