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Harrisburg’s long-awaited tiny-home village for homeless veterans opens soon: Here’s a sneak peek

Patriot-News - 5/28/2024

More than five years ago, Tom Zimmerman was scrolling through Facebook when he saw a short video about a homeless veteran community in downtown Racine, Wisconsin.

After he watched the clip, he then wrote back to Valerie Fletcher, who posted the video.

“I said we need one of these in central Pa. She said ‘I’m in if you’re in,’” said Zimmerman, co-founder and president of Veterans Outreach of Pennsylvania.

And the rest is history.

Zimmerman and Fletcher — who died in 2022 — began making phone calls. By June 2019, Veterans Outreach of Pennsylvania held its first board meeting.

In early 2021, it submitted plans to the city of Harrisburg to build the 15-unit village on a 20-acre vacant lot just south of the PennDOT building on South Front Street. The land, which was once the site of the former Phoenix Steel Corp. Mill, was donated by community member Peggy Grove.

In the years since, Veterans Outreach of Pennsylvania has raised about $4.8 million, and hundreds of people have been part of this project — volunteering, raising money, contributing and making in-kind donations.

Soon Veterans Grove, a tiny-home community for homeless veterans in Harrisburg, will be a reality. The now-completed picturesque heart-shaped community of tiny homes will have its first residents on June 10.

Each of the 210-square-foot homes has a bedroom, a full bathroom, a countertop, a closet, storage beneath the bed, a microwave, a small stove, a coffee maker, drawers, a nightstand and a thermostat. The entire community is ADA-compliant. Each participant will also receive a laptop and will be taught basic computer skills.

The village will be close to public transportation.

There is a star-shaped memorial in the complex with bricks that will be donated by veterans and their relatives. When someone donates a brick, a veteran’s story is attached. One story will be read to residents each morning.

Residents will have access to health, wellness, counseling, education, employment and other services. Some of the partners that will provide services are UPMC, the Veterans Administration, the YMCA and the Penn State Extension.

A 6,500-square-foot community center will serve as a space where residents will receive treatment, therapy, medical, psychological and other services, said Bill Habacivch, executive director of Veterans Outreach of Pennsylvania.

The building was designed with large windows and lots of light.

“We’re trying to shed light on the issues,” Habacivch said. “There’s a theme behind that. Even the architecture kind of helps us to say ‘Hey this is about healing, this is about bringing light in.’”

A family room will serve as a space to play games and as a training room with an interactive television. It will also serve as a place for the residents to meet with their families.

“Many of our veterans are estranged from their families at this stage in their homelessness and so this might be a place for the family to kind of meet and get together and reconnect with one another,” Habacivch said.

There’s also a treatment room with medical chairs, and the VA will be donating items such as scales and blood pressure monitors.

The kitchen won’t only be a place where food will be prepared for residents but it will also be a place where they will work as well. All residents will have jobs.

Inside the community building is also the intake area. Habacivch said intake will take about three hours. All of the residents’ clothing will be given a deep freeze to kill things such as bedbugs in a freezer for a couple of days, then washed and put in a dryer at about 130 degrees to hopefully kill anything that the freezer was unable to. This is done to prevent any type of infestations, Habacivch said. A new set of clothing is provided to each new resident.

The community center also includes a dining hall, meditation room, offices and showers.

The three phases of the program include:

The first five participants will arrive around June 10 followed by the next five people about 60 days later, followed by five more residents about two months later. The average stay at similar communities around the country is six to eight months, Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman said the program is structured and is constructed around giving participants the tools necessary to become successful and to live a life of pride and dignity that they deserve.

The entire building and every tiny house is ADA-compliant.

The organization will receive referrals through organizations like the YMCA, the Bethesda Mission and Our Daily Bread, and Zimmerman said there are veterans waiting to get i the program.

“We have heard through our intake process that there are some veterans that are already in the homeless encampment that are waiting to participate in our program,” he said.

In the future, if the need is there and the organization can raise the funds, there is room on the property for an additional five homes.

At full capacity, the facility will employ about 18 to 20 people. Eight of the first 12 employees have military experience.

Officials said that the community will serve more than the 15 residents that reside there. The facility will also serve veterans through programming and also will assist veterans in preventing homelessness.

Officials from the VA will visit at least once a month and any veteran can utilize their services.

The organization also plans to partner with primary physicians, dentists and eye doctors to provide medical services.

Zimmerman is excited to soon be serving veterans and is thankful to the community.

“It’s really neat to see how the community has come behind us,” Zimmerman said.

Donations: www.veteransoutreachofpa.org.

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