Sacred Heart Veteran Village is more than just housing.

“It’s really a place to learn and grow and heal,” said Gerri Lajewski, director of development at Catholic Charities of Shiawassee & Genesee Counties, the nonprofit group behind the all-new transitional housing program for homeless veterans.

The Village is a $3.5-million housing project slated to break ground this summer at 719 E. Moore St. in Flint. Once completed in mid-2025, the Village will include a Veteran Resource Center, extensive programming, and two dozen single-person bungalows.

Collage of images. Left is a map of the layout to the future Veterans Village. Middle and right are renderings of the future community resource building and pods of homes.
From left to right: A map showing the layout of the future Veteran Village. A rendering showing the community veteran resource building, which will be open to all. A rendering of the community, where homes will be placed into pods of four to create a shared courtyard space.

Programming will include a range of services to support mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health as well as transitional housing for veterans experiencing chronic homelessness, lacking autonomy in their living space, living in substandard conditions, or needing stability to function in an independent living situation.

It’s the first community of its kind in Michigan. The Village is located on the grounds of the former Sacred Heart Catholic Church and School, which were closed and demolished in years past. When it came time to decide how to best serve the community on that land, the previous president and CEO of Catholic Charities, Vicky Schultz, had an idea.

“It was around the time that the idea of tiny homes was getting around and housing costs were getting higher and higher,” said Katie Baxter, president and CEO. “Vicky came up with the plan to build small homes for people but connect it to programming to help them learn and grow until they’re healed enough to move into permanent housing.

“Not just give them a fish … but teach them to fish.”

After the shock of seeing homeless veterans again and again at the charity’s warming center, the decision was made to designate the project for those who served their country.

Flint native and U.S. Marine Corps veteran Daniel Vela has volunteered on the project from its inception. Although he never experienced homelessness, he sees the problem all too often among veterans.

“When I came home in 2009 after one deployment to Iraq and one deployment in Afghanistan, I had a very strong family and support system behind me here … but I still struggled,” Vela said.

“All these men and women are coming home and some of them are still dealing with traumas from the war. It can be so hard to transition properly and find homes, so sometimes they fall into addiction and things like that.”

That’s where the Village comes in.

The development will be designed to build trust with participants and provide a place of healing and security for the whole community, Baxter said.

Each barrier-free home will average 250 to 400 square feet and include a bathroom, kitchen, and private entrance. Two model homes and building foundations are already completed.

Collage of photos. Left is the exterior of a model home. Middle bathroom with a accessible sink, toilet and walk-in shower. Right is the view of the small living area from the kitchen kitchen of grey cabinets, white countertop, undercabinet microwave.
Inside one of the model homes, located across the street from the Center for Hope

Participants will also have access to a multipurpose space for meetings, training, classes, basketball and worship, as well as a small fitness room, kitchen, and offices.

But not all program participants will live there. The 24 bungalows are one of the many tools available to program participants. There will also be a 5,000-square-foot Veteran Resource Center to serve any veteran in Genesee County, and programming will encourage support and collaboration with other organizations that serve veterans.

“It’s more than just putting a roof over their heads,” Lajewski said. “It’s about helping them deal with the trauma they’ve experienced with wraparound services and helping them eventually transition to permanent housing.”

Although the bungalows won’t be completed for a year, Catholic Charities hopes to begin programming as soon as possible.

“And no matter what, even if you don’t qualify to live in one of the bungalows or maybe one of them is not available when you’re ready, we still want to help you,” Lajewski said. “We still want to get you in contact with those resources you need.”

Genesee County has the fifth-largest veteran population in the state with 23,801 veterans. It’s uncertain how many local veterans are homeless, though. And it’s even trickier to define who qualifies as a veteran.

Most people think a veteran is someone who served their country, Lajewski said. But a person’s length and type of service, discharge status, and wartime versus peace time service can affect who qualifies for many government benefits, she said.

Often veterans fall through the gap.

“But a big part of what Catholic Charities has stood for and done since 1941 is filling in those gaps to serve the people who need it,” Lajewski said.

Because Sacred Heart Veteran Village is privately funded, it can serve veterans no matter how the government defines them.

“This allows us to make decisions on an individual basis with a selection committee and, in the end, helps us to help more people,” Lajewski said.

Catholic Charities began working in 2022 with Innovative Tiny Homes, the Genesee Career Institute, and Jeff Ferweda of Sedgewick + Ferweda Architects to identify layouts for small footprint homes.

The homes were cleared for construction after the Flint’s Zoning Board of Appeals granted an exemption allowing homes smaller than 600 square feet.

Financial support for the project has come from across the community.

Initial funding was secured through the Clara Lionel Foundation founded by Rihanna and the Community Foundation of Greater Flint. They purchased two property lots near their Flint campus on Root Street through the Genesee County Land Bank.

The Flint City Council in November 2023 approved $400,000 in ARPA funding for the project, sponsorships from local companies and private donors in January totaled more than $300,000, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation announced a grant award of $500,000 in February.

Vela said he’s touched by the outpouring of support.

“Here in Flint, this community supports its veterans in many different ways,” he said.

Baxter said she hopes the Village will serve as a model for programming and be replicated in the future as a way to address the crisis of homelessness.

“There are so many other populations who might benefit from a community model and integrated care,” Baxter said. “We hope this is the first of many villages.”