A Tiny Piece of Paradise – Homes for the Homeless Vets in Sonoma County, CA .
Transcript of A Tiny Piece of Paradise – Homes for the Homeless (S1E3)
David: This is the good government show.
Jeff Lawrence: That was 250 square feet of pure luxury.
David: That’s the topic of today is the good government show, tiny houses for veterans. Hi, I’m Dave Martin, and this is the good government show.
Carol: And I’m your co-host and correspondent for this week, Carol D’auria.
David: So Carol, when you talk about tiny houses for veterans, you know, how small are we talking? How tiny are we talking about?
Carol: Well, like the man said at the top of our show, David’s, they are less than 250 square feet. It’s the size really of a small hotel room. It’s very compact, but it’s home. And what makes it even better is that this is permanent housing for veterans. It’s not transitional housing or a homeless shelter, but an honest to goodness standalone tiny house that even has a porch. They’re located in Santa Rosa, which is in Sonoma County, California. Shirlee Zane is one of the people who spearheaded the tiny houses. She’s the former supervisor for Sonoma County, and her dad was a World War two veteran. And he’s one of the two people the tiny houses are named after. So here’s how she describes the tiny houses.
Shirlee Zane: So they’re I think they’re running around 230 square feet and they all have their own little porches and that and the veterans that live there, they take great pride in their porches. And when you walk in, there’s a bed, there’s a desk, there’s a television, and then you keep walking back a little bit farther and you have a full kitchen. And Ada compliant bathroom and shower, which was important for us to do that. So so many veterans are disabled and they needed to have those ADA entrances, which cost us a little extra money and a little extra time. But this is the people who we were servicing.
So they’re they’re completely and utterly contained. And when we move them in, we had donations in terms of bedding, towels, pots, pans, you name it. We outfitted those little homes with everything they needed to be self-contained and right away there was clear that they needed additional services, especially in terms of the food part. So since almost all of them are eligible for the Meals on Wheels program and I ran that program for ten years in the county, we were able to get a lot of on them, either on Meals on Wheels or to have food bank drops there at the site. There’s one place that is a community center, but I say community center, it’s very small, but it has enough room for a washer and dryer and a table so that they can have community games or community meals together.
Carol: I can’t imagine living in such a small place. I’d have trouble with it. But for a homeless veteran, it’s really perfect. These are troubled men who had been living together under the California Freeway, or they were under a bridge or in a tent, or maybe even in an old car. And veterans like Jeff Lawrence and Varnell Williams, they love the tiny houses.
Jeff Lawrence: This four permanent housing. So anytime you get a permanent house versus that, the transitional housing where a person has to move out and so long or only has such a limited stay, you know, permanent housing is OK. This is where my head rests at night. This is my home and that that property right now, I’ve got pictures of it. When it was just being… we’re building on it and the way the landscaping is coming together and just the way it glows at night, it gives you that warm, fuzzy. It gives me a warm, fuzzy at least, you know, because of the way the units are lined up north to the south and the 14 of them with the doors facing each other, the palms in the middle, the trees, the shrubs, the warmth that comes out of the the houses, the house, windows at night, the glow. It’s just it’s amazing. It’s a nice feeling to be there in the evening when you know you’re home.
Varnell Williams: It is tiny and I’ve been blessed. I didn’t lose a lot of my belongings, like some people came with nothing and I filled it up quick. But it’s worth it. It’s well worth it. I wouldn’t. I couldn’t think of anything better. I mean, especially it’s tranquil. You’ll have a rough patch every now and then, you know, as people living close together, it’s almost like a brother and sister relationship. Well, you know, like I said, the idea that they came up with this is it’s awesome. It was a good idea. And it’s it’s housing more business. And I’ve seen.
David: Wow, those are pretty incredible stories, but it sounds like these are. It sounds like it’s more than just a house to these guys. It sounds like it’s, you know, they’ve got something here.
Carol: Right? It’s more than four walls with a door and a lock. Homeless veterans are an underserved population, David. It’s a group of men and women. They fought for our country, but then they come home and they have trouble fighting for themselves to get what they need. So they have great difficulty just getting the basic necessities that the rest of us take for granted. Now Shirlee Zane, whose father I told you was a veteran, she really understands how needy some of these veterans are.
Shirlee Zane: You know, veterans were committing suicides at 22 a day. At the very least, the homeless populations were rising, and this was the inexpensive way that we could create housing and the care that the veterans needed. And this isn’t just 14 tiny homes. It is a community that we created over there. A community of veterans who suffered from mental illness, PTSD, substance abuse. Some of them had been on the streets more than ten years, but the average amount of time that they were homeless was around seven or eight years, I believe. So we’re not talking about people who have a lot of social skills. They’re not working, they’re disabled, they’re disabled. And yet the military and our country has has failed the people who serve and protect us and champion our freedoms.
Carol: And one of the people who knows what the homeless veterans are really going through. What they need is the person who built the tiny houses. He himself is a veteran of the war in Iraq, and his name is Michael Wolff.
Michael Wolff: That was actually one of my biggest concerns to begin with because although I thought it was, you know, a great idea and concept to build tiny homes for veterans. one of my biggest fears was that these individuals are homeless for a reason. And if you ignore that reason and you just put them, give them the keys to a house that could actually be worse for them than leaving them in the environment they are. Because at least when they’re out on the street, they’re forced to go out and do something every day.
And for instance, if they did have a drug addiction that wasn’t, you know, they weren’t doing anything about, you’re just giving them a place to go, do their drugs and hide out from society. And I felt like that might be a bad thing, but Shirlee talked to me about all of the other resources that are available for everything from counseling to job placement. And they have, you know, social workers that check in with them on a pretty regular basis. And then. Of the 14, there are 21 at each end and one on either side. Basically, leaders that have been in, like the group home environment for quite a while and have kind of graduated from the program. And so those two veterans live there and they’re kind of like the apartment managers, but more because they’re veterans who are there to also understand what the other tenants are dealing with.
Carol: Right, they’ve they’ve been through it. And is there also some sort of. Is there a like a community room where if all 14 needed to get together to sort of discuss, you know, how to do the garden or something? I mean, is there that kind of space?
Michael Wolff: There is a community room that has laundry facilities in it, and they’ve also got a space where there’s some food that’s always available. And they also have just a gorgeous courtyard area right outside that community room that is kind of like an outdoor gathering area. Plus, one of the really nice touches is at the very back of the property. There is a concrete area that at the center of it, we built a labyrinth out of concrete and tile, which they like to go, sit back there and congregate back there as well.
David: So while 14 mini houses 14 veterans, it sounds like they’ve really created something a community really here. But are they still working with the county? Do they still get services?
Carol: Oh, absolutely. You just can’t give someone the key to a house and walk away when they have issues. Paula Cooke is the executive director of Community Housing in Sonoma County, and she’s the one who explained to me how it all works.
Paula Cooke: It’s a great project, and the most important thing is that we created a community there, and much of that community is is derived from two things. one is the design of how the houses have porches and they face one another. And so, you know, the tenants, the veterans who live there have have autonomy and privacy, and yet they can’t walk out their door and see their fellow tenants, which is, you know, can be challenging. It’s the good news and the bad news, but it’s mostly the good news.
And then we also have the poor managers on staff. So it isn’t just a development and service providers. Case managers come in and meet with people individually and there is someone who lives there and one unit on one side of the development and one who lives in a unit on the opposite end. And they are the go-to people for the tenants, and that helps to regulate the the conversations that happen and inform the conversations that inevitably happen among people. The game of telephone, if you will. But there’s also a sense of a strong sense of caring for one another.
And I know one of our pure managers. He was taking one of his fellow veterans who lives a few houses down from him to all of his chemo appointments and the one of the veterans he Jeff Lawrence. They go and pick up food bank food for the tenants once a month, and they coordinate with another volunteer group called Sonoma Food Runners who picks up, you know, large tech companies who provide food for their employees during the day and what’s left over. They don’t want to throw away. So Food Runners comes in Sonoma Food runners comes and picks it up and takes it to one of our properties. So we’re pretty fortunate that that happens.
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Well, building 14 houses, I don’t care how big they are. This had to cost a lot of money.
Carol: Oh, very true. And you have to hear what Michael Wolff did to make it happen.
Michael Wolff: What I did find out was that the project was significantly underfunded. The lowest bid that they had gotten to do the project was in the neighborhood of $2.4 million, I believe. And they had roughly $1.3 million to do the project and when I figured out, you know, I did a detailed estimate and figured out what it would cost for me to do the construction and I was in the neighborhood of $1.8 million, so I felt like this is a project that needs to happen. So no matter what we got to, we got to do it. We’ll figure out the details later. I commit to building it. I’ll do it at the 1.3 million and we’ll just figure it out and…
Carol: …you can get into a lot of trouble with that kind of decision making. Financially, right?
Michael Wolff: Well, we had we had just finished a very successful year in business and not like I had an extra $500,000 to throw around, but I felt like I wanted to give back. I wanted to help the veterans. If we had to donate here and there we would. I did feel like once other people heard about what we were doing, there would be a lot of support for that and other people might be interested in helping out and donating as well, and which I did find that to be true, not to the extent that I would have liked, but. You know, lots of people were excited about it and wanted to help, and just there was a lot of enthusiasm behind it. And sometimes, you know, for a good cause, you don’t have to have everything figured out at the front end. If it needs to happen, you just do what has to happen and then make it real. And we did.
Carol: So you put in several hundred thousand dollars of your own money. It’s 500,000 the accurate number.
Michael Wolff: No that ended up being closer to 800,000? And I wasn’t prepared for that. I actually at the end of this thing, ended up having to refinance my house to pull some money out. And of course, my wife was like, What are you doing? And I’m like, It’s it’s going to be OK. And we made it happen.
David: Wow. He did all that. And his wife sounds like she’s a pretty amazing person as well.
Carol: Well, I sure hope so. Michael Wolff, though, understands how important the housing is. His motivation for this? Well, when he sees a homeless veteran, he thinks to himself, That could have been me.
Michael Wolff: I served in the Marine Corps. I served 14 years. I mean, some of that was active duty, and some of that was in the reserves. I finally decided to leave the Marine Corps in 2013 because I was I came off active duty in 2009 after a deployment to Iraq and I was dealing with. Some personal issues at the time, you know, surrounding PTSD and an a physical injury that I had also gotten that were just. It was time for me to be done with that chapter of my life and start focusing on what I’m doing now and my family and.. But I just did one tour to Iraq and over a 14 year period, and it was a very good experience. I love the Marine Corps, I’m very proud Marine, but I’m also glad that I’m done with that and that I’m doing what I’m doing now.
Carol: But but this is, why you have such feelings for this project, and I’m sure that the fellows you helped are aware of that, right?
Michael Wolff: They are, and it’s always nice to go by there because I. This the welcome that I received when I show up, they all are just great, but. I was actually really lucky, you know, I came I came home and had a really hard time adjusting, but I had a lot of friends that were super patient with me in a family that just wouldn’t give up on me. And for a period of time, I refused to acknowledge that I had any kind of PTSD or that there was any issues. And if anybody ever brought it up, I became angry.
And during this time I was self-medicating with alcohol and just living a very fast life that was not going anywhere. And. I. Realized that I was hurting people. In my wake. And that really is what helped me to start to turn things around and get the help that I needed.
And I was actually able to, you know, because of the skill sets that I already had. Transplant one. Self-medication for another. And I stopped drinking and I became a workaholic, which, you know, was in some ways really good because it helped me to build this really successful business that I was later able to go on and help other people with. But, you know, also it gave me a little bit of a buffer to be able to clear my mind enough to realize I needed some help. And I started doing some counseling through the VA and actually kind of didn’t give up on that either, because I had a number of counselors that weren’t very good. But finally, I got one that was great and he was able to. To really. Help me understand some of what I was dealing with and processing in a way that I can start to move through it instead of just avoiding it like I had always done.
But it’s so easily could have gone another direction. And I see how some of these veterans, they get out there and they’re lost and without somebody to pull them back and to be there for them. They’ll waste away and so it was very near and dear to my heart because it could have been me. Luckily it wasn’t, but I luckily I was. I’m in a position where I could be that guy that was able to help.
David: Wow. That is pretty amazing. What a really powerful story he’s got.
Carol: I wanted to reach out and hug him.
David: Did you? Did you hug him?
Carol: Well, I gave him a virtual hug.
David: It was a virtual hug. All right. Well, that counts, too.
Carol: Michael love story is only half of the story, though. It takes a lot of people and a whole lot of grit and determination and money to build the 14 houses. Paula Cooke and give you an idea of how much effort and good government it took to get this job done.
Paula Cooke: The tenacity of us, the developer, the tenacity of our general contractor to take this on and to donate upwards of. And when I say donate both his profit and, you know, time and a lot of donated materials, I think somewhere between $800,000 and $1,000,000. So, you know, that’s unheard of. So it was a labor of love for Michael. It was a labor of love for my team who didn’t get paid for over a year. And so we could finally close the land with the county, which was a very contentious and extremely difficult to do because there had been a real seat change and in staffing between when the projects started and when we actually closed our loan with the county. And then, you know, the tenacity of leadership at the Board of Supervisors and Shirlee really had to go to bat for the project, more than once.
I think we had three hearings, one on selecting the developer and two on the financing. And each time she had to, you know, go to bat for the project. And so it was definitely challenged from the very beginning. The site changed the the financing was difficult, but you know, there are a lot of people on our board who know a lot of people, all of whom are, you know, veterans, either combat veterans or non-combat veterans. And there a lot of local support for doing what we’re we’re doing, even if it’s just for 14 people. And so a lot of fundraising and a lot of support went into it and we made it happen and it was the hardest project I’ve ever worked on.
David: That really is pursuing good government because a couple of different turns there, she could have walked away.
Carol: Absolutely. Most people would have walked away. But these are people who are highly motivated in some cases for very personal reasons, like Michael Wolff and Shirlee Zane, the former supervisor of Sonoma County. Her father was a highly decorated veteran.
David: This was really a personal mission for her, wasn’t it?
Carol: It really was. This is, it brings tears to her eyes when she talks about it.
Shirlee Zane: So it was just a couple of years ago, though, Carol, that I found out that my father was an enlisted man and I knew that. But what I didn’t know is that the military generally does not give flying crosses to enlisted men. So the fact that he was a crew chief in this marine air group and and enlisted poor kid from New Jersey memorized the eye chart because he wanted to be a marine and had horrible eyesight and had been given this. I know that makes me cry. And got awarded this battle. Yeah.
Carol: That is the stuff of heroes.
Shirlee Zane: And it’s our job is elected leaders to take their sacrifices and to create something beautiful out of them, to remember them and let them inspire us to do great things. You know, we don’t get elected for paychecks, you know? But too many people will run for office for ego sake rather than service sake. I’m a former nonprofit director and I ran for the purpose of I wanted to do more and and housing for veterans and mental health care are the two things that are at the top of my list.
Carol: And so the tiny houses are officially known as the Michael Wolff John Zane Veterans Village of Sonoma County.
David: While veterans, homeless veterans, veterans living in tents, veterans living under highways there in their own homes, their own permanent homes. That is good government at its finest.
Carol: And join us next time, everyone, for another story about how good government sees a problem, finds a solution and gets the job done.
David: Well, thanks, Carol. I’m Dave Martin.
Carol: I’m Carol D’auria.
David: And this is the Good Government Show. The Good Government Show is a Valley Park Production, Jason Stershic is our editor and producer. Associate producers are Jade Ludlow and Mackenzie Martin, the executive producers of The Good Government Show are Jim Ludlow, David Martin and David Snyder. Join us again right here for another episode of The Good Government Show.