For many of the people of Greater Flint, homelessness has been a constant threat since the 1980s and the problem has only grown, with record increases in rental rates and a lack of affordable traditional housing. Today, it is estimated that nearly 600,000 people are experiencing homelessness throughout the country and, of those experiencing it, nearly 6% are United States Military veterans. In Greater Flint, the percentage of homeless vets is much higher. “It is estimated that between 15-40% of the local homeless individuals are veterans,” states Katie Baxter, CEO of Catholic Charities of Shiawassee and Genesee Counties. “In this group, there is clearly a need. After everything they have done for us, it just doesn’t seem right.”
For Catholic Charities of Shiawassee and Genesee Counties (CCSGC), the mission is to share the love of Christ by performing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Since 1941 through today, they have fed the hungry through meal programs and soup kitchens, clothed the naked through available laundry and community closets, comforted and prayed for the sick, helped the imprisoned through rehabilitation, and counseled those with substance abuse and other behavioral health challenges, and much more. Catholic Charities also operates as a Housing Assessment Resource Agency (HARA) that provides housing placement services for those who don’t have a home, or are at risk of homelessness. This places CCSGC in the unique position to experience the tragedy of Greater Flint’s homeless population first-hand and take action to alleviate it.
“Sacred Heart Village started with my predecessor, Vicky Schultz,” recalls Baxter. “Nearly 14 years ago, we opened up our Warming Center during the winter months and it was quickly full to capacity. We found an overwhelming need for housing and Vicky came up with the idea of using our Sacred Heart property to build tiny homes in order to provide more resources to help the homeless and fulfill that need.” The idea was quickly supported by the Catholic Charities Board and planning began. Sacred Heart Village will consist of 25 “tiny homes” (250-400 sq. feet) where homeless vets can live while they undergo a program designed to help them get back on their feet and become self-sufficient. Next summer (2024), the first phase of construction will begin at 719 E. Moore St. in Flint on the old site of Sacred Heart Church—for which the village is named.
“In Phase One, 13 homes will be built along with the Sacred Heart Village Veterans Community Center,” explains Baxter. “In Phase Two, the final 12 homes will be built in groups of four to create a sense of community and reduce feelings of isolation. We want our veterans to understand that they are not alone in what they are going through and that there is hope.”
“We want our veterans to have a beautiful home in a safe, trauma-informed community of their peers.”
Michigan State Representative David Martin is fully behind the Sacred Heart Village project. “In Genesee County, we love our veterans and it is important to give back to them,” he says. “It is good that they have an advocate for their needs and a program that will help them get back on their own two feet.”
The program is transitional in nature and the duration of stay depends on each individual’s primary needs. It is estimated that participants will be engaged for an average of 1-3 years. “We want our veterans to have a beautiful home in a safe, trauma-informed community of their peers,” adds Baxter. Each home will house a single individual and, while living at the village, each participant is expected to be fully engaged in the program. “We are working with Genesee Health System and other partners to develop a program for veterans and provide wrap-around services to establish stability and independence in their lives,” says Baxter. “Veterans will have access to therapy, spiritual resources, financial literacy training, job training and skilled trades, nutritional education and physical exercise.” To supplement the village, the Sacred Heart Village Veterans Community Center will provide meeting spaces, kitchen and dining area, and recreation areas. “A courtyard will be available for outdoor activities along with space for future gardening,” Baxter adds. The Veterans Center will be open to any veteran or veteran group who wishes to partake in the Sacred Heart Village community as a leader, mentor or friend.
The program will be open to all veterans and discharge status will not disqualify a veteran from eligibility. Each applicant’s situation will be evaluated by a selection committee that includes CCSGC board members, clinicians and peer veterans. Some veterans may need stabilization (intensive substance use disorder and/or mental health treatment) before entrance into the program. “It is part of our mission to serve the most in need,” says Baxter. “We hope that, through success, Sacred Heart Village will serve as a model for programming that can be replicated for other populations such as single parents or children aging out of the foster care system.”
Sacred Heart Village and the Veterans Center are designed by local firm, Sedgewick + Ferweda Architects. Funding for the construction of the first two model homes was provided by the Clara Lionel Foundation founded by pop singer Robyn “Rihanna” Fenty through the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, and locals Tom and Eileen Landry. One of the first model homes was built in part by students at the Genesee Career Institute and construction of the other involved Innovative Tiny Homes and an Amish community in northern Michigan. “We are awaiting approval of a $500,000 ARPA grant for excavation and land preparation,” informs Baxter. The CCSGC is also applying for a grant for the Veterans Center through the State of Michigan Department of Labor, as well a grant from The Home Depot to help cover building costs.
“Everyone asks us, ‘why veterans?’” says Baxter. “It is because they are a population we have identified as in need of service. Many are dealing with mental health or behavioral issues and military discharge status can leave many without resources. We aim to help veterans to stability and through them, enrich our community.”
If you would like to support the construction and programming of Sacred Heart Village, the CCSGC asks for, first and foremost, your prayers—followed by a donation of time or money. Sacred Heart Village is looking for talented and skilled volunteer tradesmen for construction, and veteran mentors for programming and community. For more information, please visit catholiccharitiesflint.org.