For the last five years, an Ellis County nonprofit has been giving homeless or at-risk veterans a place to regroup as they try to get back on their feet.
Serenity Veterans Village has provided transitional housing and various services for local veterans who need help. The program began in 2017 with a house in Palmer and later added a house in Waxahachie.
It’s in those houses that veterans who had been without a consistent place to live can get the structure and the resources they need.
But the future of the Waxahachie house may be in jeopardy.
Serenity Veterans Village founder Lauren Andrade said this week that the organization can’t afford the house and may have to sell it. She said an increase in property taxes has raised the mortgage from $900 a month to $1,400 a month.
“We cannot sustain this without help, and that help has not arrived,” Andrade said. “I never considered that we would have to sell before.”
A place to stay
Andrade said she began Serenity Veterans Village after some of her fellow veterans faced challenges upon returning home from serving in Iraq.
What they needed most was a place to stay, and she knew they weren’t alone.
On a quarter-acre lot in Palmer sits a 1,200-square-foot home that houses three homeless or at-risk veterans. On an acre nearby there is a smaller two-bedroom house as well as open space for RVs or campers to house veterans or their surviving family members.
In 2020 the organization expanded into Waxahachie with a 1,200-square-foot house.
Each house has a living room, kitchen, dining area, bathroom, laundry room, heating and air, and three locking bedrooms.
Andrade said each house only serves three people at a time to give them the privacy they need. While the goal is to reintroduce them into society it needs to be at their own pace, she said.
“We don’t double up rooms,” Andrade said. “We don’t want this to be like a shelter. We want them to relate to each other but feel safe. If they want to get together they can go into the common area.”
In fact, camaraderie is important, she said, as oftentimes the only ones who can relate to what the veteran is going through are the people who share the living room with them.
Andrade said most of the residents who come to the house have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and/or a traumatic brain injury.
“When you’re living with someone who understands that it’s easier,” Andrade said.
The Palmer location also has an aquaponic garden so the residents can grow their own vegetables and fish. They eat what they can, and they sell the leftovers.
In fact, food is a major part of life for the veterans living at the houses. Andrade said the residents spend a lot of their time cooking.
“They cook 24/7,” Andrade said. “They’re so used to being on the street and not having cooked food that they feel like if they don’t cook they won’t have anything. It takes a while for them to settle in to a welcome home.”
Serenity Veterans Village also provides clothes, toiletries and, if needed, free food for the first month.
But there are requirements to be accepted by the organization. The resident must agree to work for 20 hours a week or volunteer with Serenity Veterans Village.
They must also abstain from drugs and alcohol. Andrade said some residents have left because of that.
“They were open about it and said they can’t kick it,” Andrade said. “And we can’t help with counseling because we’re out of money.”
In addition to housing, Serenity Veterans Village helps its residents transition back into their own home.
Andrade said it works with veterans to remove financial barriers, such as offering transportation since they often don’t have a driver’s license. The organization provides skill development, job training and helps the individual repair their credit.
“Our goal is to remove the stress and the financial burden,” Andrade said. “Then the whole world opens up for them.”
A resident is ready to “graduate” when their debts are cleared, they are working on improving their credit, are working and have moved into their own home, which often comes via VA loans.
But she said reaching that goal can take some time.
“It can take two to four years,” Andrade said. “They have to pay off back child support, fix their bad credit and build their good credit. And that can take a year or a year and a half. To do that you have to start small. So we expect people to be here two to four years.”
Andrade said Serenity Veterans Village has housed 40 residents since 2017. Seven of them have graduated into their own homes.
Of the three residents living at the Waxahachie house, one is about to graduate into their own home, and another one is close, Andrade said.
But a third one has a terminal illness. Andrade said her program at times serves as a final home for homeless veterans. She said three veterans have come to Serenity Veterans Village with a terminal illness over the years, and two of them have died.
“They passed on at a place where people understood them,” Andrade said.
She also said most of the residents are ages 75 or older – they served in the Korean War or Vietnam War.
Andrade said knowing that some of her residents have health issues makes the Waxahachie house that more important.
She said if the Waxahachie house closes and the resident has to be relocated to the Palmer facility it would take more than 20 minutes to get him medical help.
“We need to keep him close to Baylor Scott & White,” Andrade said. “Right now he’s just down the street from the EMS and from Baylor. That’s why losing the house would be horrible.”
Andrade said she’s hoping to raise enough money to cover the mortgage increase plus utilities. The organization is planning a fundraiser at 10 a.m. July 2 at the Palmer House, 1100 Epps Road, to raise money to save the Waxahachie house.
“The problem is I might not make it until then with utilities and mortgage,” Andrade said.
For more information on Serenity Veterans Village or how to help go to serenityveteransvillage.org.