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CD MEDIA REPORT FEATURE INTERVIEW – DANA SPAIN, VBC GIVING FOUNDATION PRESIDENT

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CD MEDIA: How dire is the housing crisis facing poverty-stricken, vulnerable, and in some cases, homeless veterans in America today, in your view?

Dana Spain (VBC GIVING FOUNDATION PRESIDENT): At any given time, having 38,800 veterans who are housing insecure or experiencing real homelessness is about as dire as we can get, in terms of what a country should be doing for our heroes who have fought for our freedom. However, while I think this scenario is pretty dire to-date, that’s just the tip of the iceberg for other vulnerable populations across the country. 

When we start looking at the full homelessness and housing insecure populations, they’re really in the hundreds of thousands, and that’s why you see large cities across the country struggling with their homelessness and their homeless encampments and people continuing to face housing insecurity.

There’s just not enough housing, and there are very few incentives to build that housing from the private sector, which means that the government has to step in and try to build housing. As we well know, the government doesn’t build anything particularly well. So where are all those units going to come from? 

Let’s be clear- We face a crisis that is only going to get worse, both from within the veteran population and other vulnerable populations as inflation increases, which will mean that while rents increase, construction decreases. 

We’re at the forefront of a true national crisis and we’re not alone.

CD MEDIA: Other than veterans, which vulnerable communities is the VBC Giving Foundation looking to serve?

Dana Spain: So the top categories, although there are many vulnerable and marginalized populations, we are focusing on are veterans, seniors, kids aging out of foster care, and single female heads of household.

I would say that when the general public is looking at the evening news and sees encampments, they don’t necessarily realize who might be in those encampments. They just say, “Okay, well, there are people [there] with mental illnesses or people with addiction issues” – They ultimately don’t see the individual populations for who they are. 

If you ask Joe Q. Public on the street, would they think that we have almost 40,000 housing-insecure veterans any given night in America? I think that news would come as a huge shock.

Then we look at the senior population. Well, of course, we house our seniors. We have plenty of aging facilities, assisted living facilities, and people taking care of their parents and grandparents. They wouldn’t think that, for example, in the City of Philadelphia, there are 3,000 seniors on waiting lists for affordable housing. It’s not something the public is aware of, to be certain.

Another demographic, in terms of kids aging out of foster care, again, is not at the top of the news cycle; nobody’s talking about it. But where do kids go when they turn 18 and they have been in the foster system for anywhere from 2 years to 18 years? Now the money and subsidies have run out for the foster parents. The foster parents might now take in children who are taking other children’s places in the foster system. 

Nobody talks about it. So where did these young people go?

They can’t afford to just move into an apartment building. They have no credit. They may or may not have ever had a job. They may or may not be facing social interaction issues or mental or physical disabilities. Where do they go? 

We want to address the issue of providing a soft landing for overarching vulnerable populations, but in particular, seniors, kids aging out of foster care, and people who otherwise may not have any resources at their fingertips to find housing, and to afford that housing. 

We as an American society face a quiet crisis going into 2023. You look at the news and you see the war in Ukraine and you see inflation and you see troubles in schools and then a homeless encampment in San Francisco or L.A., but there’s never a breakdown of who these people are; where did they come from? How come they don’t have any resources? Why are we silently sticking them in hotels and motels, at the very best, and just exacerbating a crisis, at the very least?

Why don’t we know who these people are as human beings? Why isn’t this something that the public says, “Wow, that’s unacceptable? How can we have seniors who are housing-insecure? How is that even a possibility in a first-world country like the United States of America? How is it possible that we’re not housing our heroes? How is it possible that kids, when they turn 18, are given a slap on the back and told ‘Good luck and God bless’? 

These are questions which we need to ask ourselves – I think that if there was more light shown on the human aspects of these populations, there would be more public outcry, and more public involvement to solve the problems those we serve face here at home.

CD MEDIA: Veterans Village in Philadelphia is one of your flagship projects at the VBC Giving Foundation. Can you explain to us the Veterans Village Project and its significance?

Dana Spain: The Veterans Village Project is the template for the VBC Giving Foundation’s Affordable Housing complexes, a model which we seek to expand upon in short order. We call it a village because it’s really about putting populations together that can thrive and do so by way of neighbors helping neighbors. 

In the case of veterans, for example, there’s a built-in camaraderie of people who have served in uniform – They are used to the military way of living, they’re used to the infrastructure regarding how they served in the military, and they share a commonality of issues.

The same can be said for seniors; the same can actually be said for kids aging out of foster care, or single female heads of households – they in fact share a commonality of issues which they face and each population has their own. 

They can look to their neighbors for help in times of crisis, in addition to programs and resources that might be provided by the individual communities or the government, but it’s really about neighbors helping neighbors thrive in any environment. 

Although Veterans Village provides Affordable Housing, it is built like any other market-rate development. 

We are not talking about micro-studios or tiny homes; these are ample apartments for independent living. The villages are set up with community rooms and onsite management, to be able to offer programs that each population requires, to be offer a successful model in independent living. So that could mean exercise classes, that could mean job fairs, that could mean financial literacy programs. It could be a book club – It’s the things that keep people connected and help them get what they need to survive and thrive in their communities.

The Veterans Village Project, including land acquisition, is a $6 million, 47-unit apartment building complex, one which is designed to be replicable across the nation. The apartments run from ample studios, studio pluses, bedrooms, two bedrooms, and three bedrooms, which are built specifically for family units. In the case of Veterans Village, if you are an honorably discharged veteran, you are welcome into the complex. But the real outreach metrics and the tendency that we think is going to make up 80% of the residents in the building will be those people coming out of transitional living – whether that be sheltering environments or addiction recovery programs – or, just people who want to be in a village with other veterans for the aforementioned reasons, and those who want to live in new construction and better conditions.

We also have a fund within Veterans Village that allows people coming out of transitional environments to move into fully furnished apartments, and that includes furnishings, tableware, linens, a coffee maker, and everything that someone might need to be able to move in and call their dwelling a home, not just an apartment.

CD MEDIA: What aspects of the Veterans Village Project in Philadelphia are replicable and scalable elsewhere to other projects across the United States and globally, specifically? 

Dana Spain: Veterans Village was built with modular construction, which means offsite construction. It’s manufactured on an assembly line by human hands with assisted automation, which means that from a construction perspective, it is solidly built, environmentally friendly, resilient,  and energy efficient. 

There’s very little construction waste, and it’s built in a climate-controlled environment by the hands of, in this case, often other veterans, building for their brothers and sisters in uniform. 

What makes this able to be replicated is that modular construction, like any sort of assembly line construction, means that the more you build the same thing or a similar product over and over and over again, the more efficient, and cost effective the process becomes.

So, while this would be a $6 million project, if we are using the architectural plans and shop-drawings of how this building came together, consider it a puzzle made out of three-dimensional Legos, the more that we build the same or similar products, whether it’s on the East Coast, Midwest, South, West Coast, the more that we build of the same product, the more efficient it becomes and the less expensive the process becomes. 

Once we start building thousands of units, which is our mission, you’re going to see the per-apartment cost drop exponentially – That’s what makes modular construction the most efficient way to address affordable housing, because we can create hundreds and even thousands of units in a short period of time, with great construction efficiency.

As an open-source model, VBC Giving Foundation will also assist people and other organizations with the Affordable Housing model. We show them how to build their equity cap stack; how to get financing; what kind of land is most appropriate for development; how to get entitlements for that land, and offer guidance with the construction itself from architectural design and shop drawings to partnering with vendors and suppliers for building materials and finishes. 

CD MEDIA: Once those in need can obtain affordable housing, what resources do they require to ensure that they’re able to stay in these homes? Does VBC provide any of these other resources? 

Dana Spain: Independent living is just that – It’s made for adults who can live independently. So unlike transitional housing, sheltering and recovery programs, we can offer, do offer and intend to continue to offer lots of programming, but ultimately, we can’t force our residents to take advantage of those services. So it’s the whole ‘lead the horse to water’ cliché – Having said that, we intend to work with community partners who have the resources and are willing to donate those resources to our residents to support our mission in 2023 and beyond.

We take a mind, body, spirit approach to programming, to give each resident the resources to make positive choices and better themselves. So that may be enlisting a yoga instructor. It could be hiring a nutritionist. It could be a local religious leader who comes in to host fellowship. It could mean peer-to-peer counseling. It could be working with local banks to host financial literacy programs and offer assistance as simple yet important as how to reconcile a bank account, and how to protect your identity. We have chefs and people in the culinary world who also come in and provide cooking demonstrations; how to shop and cook healthy on a budget, along with food bank resources.

The premise is that a robust approach to building and maintaining a healthy lifestyle in an independent environment – this is the path of least resistance to sustainable living for those we serve for years to come, but in the process also offering a sense of community replicable the world over.

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