A Place to Call Home
REALTOR® and Veteran Mark Solomon Is On a Mission to Help Homeless Vets
In August 2020, ground was broken on the Veterans Community Project Village, a tiny home village in Longmont that will provide temporary housing to veterans experiencing homelessness. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis was on hand, as were a host of local dignitaries and community leaders. Colorado REALTOR® and Navy veteran Mark Solo-mon was there, too. As a co-founder of Veterans Community Project (VCP), it is a calling that brought him from Kansas City to Longmont in his mission to end a problem that has afflicted the U.S. for decades.
Solomon enlisted in the Naval Reserves as an Intelligence Officer in 2004 and has done tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2015, Solomon and a group of his combat veteran friends gathered in a Kansas City restaurant to discuss vets in crisis and their need for housing, counseling, and other services. Several of Solomon’s friends were working with organizations that specialize in helping vets. Those assembled ex-pressed frustration at the lack of funds available to provide them with basic necessities while government red tape proved to be a hinderance in getting them aid.
Their meeting would lead to the creation of Veterans Com-munity Project (VCP), a multi-million-dollar charity that is 100% privately funded and now has a staff of 20.
Solomon said that VCP’s private funding model enables them help all vets, regardless of discharge status. Organizations that rely on federal dollars are not allowed to help vets who have been dishonorably discharged.
Solomon says VCP defined a vet as anyone who took the Oath of Service, “whether they served for five minutes or 35 years.”
“My buddies and I who started VCP at some point raised our hands and took an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, up to and including with our lives. We thought if people were willing to write a blank check to their country, the least we could do is take care of them when the come home, regardless of the circumstances or outcomes of their service,” said Solomon.
One of the VCP’s first actions back then was to provide bus passes to veterans so they could get to their jobs.
“We had a line around the building for our bus passes. And then we got around to asking what else we can do,” said Solomon.
“We came up with this plan to end veteran homelessness. At the time we were thinking we were going to do that in Kansas City and maybe expand,” he said. “It morphed a lot faster than we thought it would ever be.
Solomon sketched some ideas on a napkin. One of his goals was to create a tiny home village for vets in need of temporary housing and also provide treatment for afflictions like post-traumatic stress disorders. Solomon says that is where his real estate background came into play.
“I started looking for property while realizing most of my other military buddies had non-profit experience, but they didn’t have business experience,” Solomon explained. “I had a business perspective from running my own team and was able to connect us with resources.”
Working with Kansas City officials, VCP eventually purchased a five-acre lot of land owned by the city. The goal of a tiny home village for vets was one step closer to reality.
The lot had no infrastructure such as water and sewage lines, but VCP worked with two Kansas City Councilwomen, who became champions for their cause, to help move the process along and cut through red tape. It cost about $1 million to outfit the lot with the necessary infrastructure, of which the city covered around $750,000 while VCP covered the remaining $250,000.
In January 2019, VCP Village opened with its first 13 tiny houses that has since grown to 49. The units range from 249 square feet for houses designed for individuals and 320 square feet for family-size units that can accommodate a family of six. Each tiny house is fully equipped with a bed, linens, kitchen with cooking utensils, etc. Residents can bring their pets with them to their tiny home, and they can take the furnishings when they are ready to move into permanent housing.
VCP Village also includes a 5,000 square foot community center with medical and dental offices and teaching kitchen. There’s also an outreach center provides Kansas City-area vets with free bus passes, employment support, counseling and housing referrals, and more.
VCP takes a wholistic approach to a vet’s unique situation, realizing housing is only one component. Vets can stay as long as they need and case managers craft a customized program for each resident to ensure they get the help they need. For example, one vet may be in an alcohol rehab program while her Village neighbor is taking a class on money management.
“We customize it very much for each veteran, making sure we deal with the issues that got them where they are,” Solo-mon said. “There are lots of levels of accountability. As long as they’re making progress with their issues, they can stay in their house.”
The average stay in a tiny home is 16-18 months based on preliminary findings, he said. Seventy-four percent of vets are placed into permanent housing once they leave the Village, which is about twice the average of other programs.
“You treat them as an entire person, making sure we take care of every aspect of their life,” he said. “Get them jobs if they’re unemployed. Make sure they know how to handle money.”
Solomon has found that Vietnam-era veterans are the largest group suffering from homelessness, but homelessness can also afflict peacetime vets. However, he says he envisions the vets from Iraq and Afghanistan wars looming in the distance and a larger chunk of them will need services like those offered by VCP in the near future.
“Right now they’re couch surfing on their friend’s couch or living in their cars. They’re about to end up on the streets,” he said. “Our goal is to circumvent that cycle and get in front of it. Solomon says the reasons why a veteran becomes homeless are complicated and can affect peacetime and wartime vets, and each person’s situation is unique.
VCP did not have Longmont on its radar for the next village. However, a chance encounter with Kevin Mulshine, a partner with HMS Development changed things.
Mulshine had been touring various homeless veterans’ facilities around the U.S. on behalf of the Longmont Veteran’s Housing Coalition (LVHC). Back in 2018, the Longmont City Council passed a resolution to support the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, a national initiative for local communities to find housing for homeless vets. The LVHC included organizations such as Habitat for Humanity of the St. Vrain Valley, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2601, and the Longmont Association of REALTORS® (LAR). HMS is constructing a subdivision with about 450 homes and agreed to donate two acres of land for Longmont’s veterans’ housing initiative. LAR, for its part, donated $5,000 in seed money for the project.
LAR CEO Amy Aschenbrenner said she thinks the tiny home village that she and other LHVC members help kick-start is a proactive first step in confronting a crisis that can be found in large cities and small towns.
“The goal of this project was finally to be able to address the issues of the veterans going through homelessness and address them so they have dignity,” she said. “And that there are no barriers that are keeping them from the help they so desperately need.”
Solomon said Mulshine was impressed with the tiny home village concept and eventually VCP was selected by LVHC to manage the tiny home development. The Longmont village will be comprised of 26 tiny homes with a 3,000 square foot community center that will offer similar services as the one in Kansas City. It is expected to be completed by Veteran’s Day 2021.
VCP is already assisting veterans in the Longmont area. The organization recently signed a lease on retail space where vets will be able to walk in and get assistance and they have already hired a full-time case manager. Solomon says VCP is the only veterans-specific service organization in northern Colorado.
As word has gotten out in the area, other service organizations who don’t handle veterans’ issues are now referring cases to VCP. Solomon says right now the priority is getting emergency assistance funds in the hands of Longmont-area veterans so they can stay in their homes or find a temporary place to stay during the winter months.
Solomon finds that vets learns of VCP through word of mouth or through referrals. “Word spreads fast when there’s an organization willing to say ‘yes’ because most of it’s ‘no’,” he said. The other organizations are tied by federal dollars. VCP, because of private funding, creates more flexibility.
Solomon is being deployed overseas in December 2020 and should be back in November 2021, just in time for the first tiny homes in Longmont to begin accepting vets.
VCP has helped around 7,000 veterans in the past three to four years. VCP al-ready had a ribbon cutting for its next tiny home village to be built in St. Louis and plans to announce additional cities in the coming months. Solomon said it is inspiring to be around veterans who are changing their lives for the better and understands. For Solomon’s work with VCP, he received the NAR Good Neighbor Award in 2019.
He credits his real estate career for pro-viding him with the opportunity to help his fellow vets.
“Real estate allows me to be flexible in my job. I don’t like saying ‘giving back’ because that means I took something. I like to pay it forward,” he said. “The communities I’ve lived in have been great to me in terms of my real estate business and I’m going to pay that kindness forward by making the community better.”
Solomon says some of VCP’s biggest supporters have been other real estate companies, who have donated money, sponsored houses, and raised money. Solomon encourages REALTORS® who wish to get involved, whether it is donating money or volunteering.
“We are a group of connectors and a group of givers. And I think the professionals (in the real estate industry) who love what they do are willing to make an impact in their com-munity,” he said.