One Man’s Plan to House Homeless Vets

Will bureaucratic red tape kill this man’s plan to house homeless vets?

Photo by Jon Estrada

Photo by Jon Estrada

The approximately 5,000 unsheltered homeless people in Southern Nevada aren’t part of the local real estate market. They don’t care about the travails of Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, they’re not debating the pros and cons of buying down points and they’re not obsessed with finding a neighborhood with the best schools or lowest crime rate. Most are simply concerned with securing a safe place to crash for the night.

This includes the roughly 800 veterans who are on our streets, according to the Southern Nevada Regional Planning Coalition. In a metropolitan area with 2 million people, 800 homeless vets may not seem like much—unless you’re Arnold Stalk. “If we have one homeless United States veteran,” Stalk says, “it is one too many for me.”

With that in mind, Stalk, who has a Ph.D. in architecture and extensive experience in private and nonprofit real estate development, centered his efforts in 2012 on a fraying 122-unit EconoLodge near Charleston and Las Vegas boulevards. He tapped into the largesse of architects, material suppliers, banks, schools and a crowd of eager hands to refurbish and customize the motel. Known today as Veterans Village, the renovated motel provides veterans in need with studio apartments, a computer lounge, communal kitchen, 24/7 crisis intervention and counseling services, regular pro bono health care and a food pantry.

But the restless Stalk, who serves as president of Veterans Village, is nowhere near finished. His most recent efforts to provide affordable safe housing for homeless veterans comes in the form of shipping containers, like the ones artfully arranged to form Downtown’s Container Park. In less than two weeks and for $10,000, Stalk says he can put together a 20-foot by 8-foot home that would be powered by a photovoltaic solar array and offer such architectural flourishes as a half-moon window, sliding-glass door and skylight. With the help of Home Depot (which donated materials) and Steelman Partners (which volunteered time and talent), Stalk built a prototype that’s displayed in the Veterans Village parking lot as a beachhead for what he hopes will be a larger community.

All Stalk needs to scale up? Someone willing to donate a piece of land or the cash to buy it. But one thing he doesn’t lack is optimism. “I tell my staff, ‘One day somebody is gonna walk in here who doesn’t look like much, and they’re gonna look around and write us a check for a million bucks.’”

Stalk’s plans for the community—which he says would take roughly two years to get up and running—include space for a group kitchen, bathroom and living room, while the 20-foot containers would serve as individual living spaces. “Each would have its own hookups, sewer, electricity, fresh water,” he says. “And if they wanted to go bigger, we’d do the 40-foot container.”

Converting shipping containers into durable, livable and even architecturally exciting dwellings is far from a new idea; in fact, Stalk built his first “instant build house” at the Meadows School in 2007 as a way to engage students. Container homes like the ones he’s proposing for veterans could be shipped and lifted into disaster areas on short notice. They are, Stalk emphasizes, “built like a brick shithouse” and designed to take anything nature could throw at them.

But having an idea or even executing a prototype doesn’t guarantee that a sound concept will ever turn into reality—especially when bureaucracies are involved. Sure enough, Stalk has been frustrated by red tape at all government levels, particularly Veterans Affairs. “Do I support the VA? Absolutely,” he says. “But they can’t seem to get their shit together. They just fired [VA construction chief Glenn Haggstrom] for cost overruns. Our [local VA] hospital is $260 million over [budget].”

There’s no arguing that the VA is publicly committed to helping homeless and at-risk veterans. The Homeless Veterans Initiative pledged to “end Veteran homelessness by 2015,” and the VA has vowed to “collaborate with federal, state and local agencies … and nonprofits.” But as laudable as the VA’s intentions are, it’s easy to understand Stalk’s frustration, as multiple attempts to reach the VA for comment for this story failed.

Needless to say, as we approach the middle of 2015, it seems unlikely the VA will reach its goal of providing adequate, safe shelter for homeless veterans by year’s end. Which is unfortunate, especially in light of a recent survey released by the social networking site WalletHub that ranked Nevada 49th out of 50 states for the percentage of resident veterans living on the streets.

For his part, Stalk will continue the fight he’s been waging for some time. He’s testified before the House Committee on Financial Services about the plight of homeless and low-income vets, and he’s served on government agency boards and committees in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. This includes a stint as Housing Division Chief for former Las Vegas Mayor Jan Laverty Jones from 1993-1995.

“This is my 40th year, so I know how to build housing,” Stalk says. “For God’s sake, you’d think I’d have the attention of Washington, D.C., if someone came up with a $10,000 house. They talk about the Veterans Green Zone, the 25 Cities Initiative, the Mayors Challenge, and let’s have another conference and a summit and a trip to Washington. Let’s just shut the fuck up and build something.”