Featured photo: Daniel Vela, U.S. Marine Corps veteran and Purple Heart recipient, poses for a portrait in front of a model home located on Root Street across from Catholic Charities in Flint. Photo by: Jenifer Veloso, Charles Stewart Mott Foundation
Flint, Michigan – The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation granted $500,000 to Catholic Charities of Shiawassee and Genesee Counties to support the creation of a village of smaller homes that will serve as transitional housing for local veterans.
Sacred Heart Village, slated for construction at 719 E. Moore St. in Flint, will consist of 24 to 26 homes ranging from 280 to roughly 500 square feet each. All will be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and eight will be barrier-free. The village also will feature a community resource center that will provide a range of health care, educational and other supportive services and programs and help to foster a sense of belonging among neighbors with shared life experiences.
“It’s a transitional, integrated, trauma-informed approach for veterans to establish stability and learn the skills necessary to live independently and integrate into society,” said Katie Baxter, president and CEO of Catholic Charities.
Baxter added: “We want them to be successful, independent and achieve their life goals.”
The creation of Sacred Heart Village is just one part of the holistic program for veterans that Catholic Charities leads and coordinates. Two of the most important characteristics of the program are that it’s tailored to each person and that veterans can receive support and resources no matter their discharge status.
“When we started working with different veteran organizations, we realized there is a huge gap in services,” said Gerri Lajewski, director of development of Catholic Charities.
Lajewski added: “This gap is caused because, if you do not meet the qualifications per the government agency, then you do not get benefits. So, someone can serve for years, but if their discharge status is not what is considered ‘honorable,’ then they don’t have those benefits,” “By keeping things privately funded, that allows us to do what Catholic Charities has been doing for over 81 years, and that’s filling in the gaps. It allows us to be flexible.”
Lance Corporal Daniel Vela has worked to support Flint area veterans since he returned home in 2009 from his service in the U.S. Marine Corps. So, when he was asked to join the planning committee for the Sacred Heart Village in 2023, he was excited for the opportunity.
“This is the type of community where we’re always helping out veterans,” said Vela, a Purple Heart recipient who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He added: “And I’m thankful Catholic Charities is getting veterans’ perspectives on this to make sure they don’t fall into stereotypical views of veterans. Every veteran is different, and we can’t lose sight of the person. I felt heard, and they asked a lot of good questions.”
Vela, who was born and raised in Flint, said returning home to civilian life was difficult — even with a strong support system. He hopes this new programming will be a positive step forward to support veterans wherever they are in their journey.
“Let’s introduce them to everyone they need to meet to get started on the right foot and prevent them from ending up on the streets in the first place,” Vela said. “This new village just made sense. We already have an army of people here ready to help. As a veteran, as a person from Flint, it makes me feel good to see this village for veterans created. I really think we can do this right.”
Sacred Heart Village will be an exciting addition to the Flint community, said Ridgway White, president and CEO of the Mott Foundation.
“This is a great way to honor veterans who’ve served our country, and it will contribute not only to their well-being and success, but to that of the community as a whole,” White added. “Catholic Charities is taking an innovative approach to supporting veterans, and the Mott Foundation is happy to play a role in making it happen.”
The construction of Sacred Heart Village is an ambitious project, with groundbreaking planned for this summer and the first phase of construction anticipated to be completed by January 2025. Trauma-informed design will be used in the construction of each home, which will have clear lines of sight, no shared walls and a bathroom door that does not extend to the floor. These elements are intended to provide the veterans with a greater sense of safety and peace of mind.
To increase stability and create an even stronger sense of community, each veteran will move in as part of a cohort of two to four individuals. The hope is that the village won’t be just a place to live, but a support system that will help the veterans heal and grow, Baxter said.
“With Sacred Heart Village, we’re not just providing housing,” Baxter said. “We’re creating a model for community support and engagement that can be replicated nationwide. This grant enables us to take a significant step towards reducing veteran homelessness in our community and establishing a sustainable model for future programming.”