West Chester nonprofit is out to build sustainable homes -- and communities -- for homeless vets

A mini-house, a porch and a greenhouse

WEST CHESTER TOWNSHIP, Ohio -- Almost 40,000 veterans in the United States were experiencing homelessness as of January 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. About 13,000 of them lacked any shelter whatsoever.

According to HUD, the number's been cut nearly in half since 2010. It's still too many for Glenn Grootegoed, co-founder of Warrior Homesteads Inc., a West Chester nonprofit dedicated to ending homelessness among veterans.

Grootegoed's plan is to build communities of at least 20 single-family homes made from recycled materials that use green technology to minimize the overhead costs of a normal home. The communities would include a communal building, made with similar technology, where residents could gather to work and play.

He recently completed work on a prototype home, built on five acres in West Chester owned by his mother, Victoria Base-Smith, director of Warrior Homesteads and an employee at the local Veterans Administration hospital. He started building it in December 2013, soon after he left his job designing and building sets for movie and theater productions in New York City.

Made from a shipping container, the 8-by-20-foot structure contains a small bathroom and a kitchen/living/bedroom.

The bathroom has a Nature's Head composting toilet that's odor-free and self-contained, plus a small ventilation fan that runs on the unit's lighting circuits. The unit also uses a graywater disposal system for water from the kitchen sink and shower.

The kitchen has concrete countertops with a fold-out table for eating or food prep. It includes a TV set that runs on 12 volts of current, which can be supplied by flexible solar panels if the unit's off the electrical grid.

Inside the living/bedroom space is a couch that doubles as a bed, with overhead bins for storing clothes and shoes. The couch, which Grootegoed found at Ikea, can be opened into a king-sized bed.

Above the living space is a small attic for storage, and attached to the living space is a porch with a patio table and a greenhouse, which together take up 240 square feet.

On a recent chilly and sunny day, passive solar heat kept the greenhouse quite warm, even with the windows open, but inside is also a cast-iron, wood-burning stove, the heat of which is circulated via a small fan, along with the solar heat from the greenhouse, into the living areas.

To maximize passive solar heat, the house faces south and its roof is pitched at a 39-degree angle. Rainwater runoff is collected in two barrels from which it can be drawn to water plants in the greenhouse and fenced-in beds in front of the house.

Grootegoed made the home sustainable partly from the desire to protect the environment, but mostly out of necessity. He wants to keep construction costs down as well as utility bills.

He estimates that each community would cost about $1.5 million to build.

Ideally, each one would have 20 acres of land on which to grow crops to feed the residents, he said, as well as to package for sale at local markets. Additional cash might come from sales of goods donated and dropped off at the community center.

Grootegoed hopes to pay administrative costs for the nonprofit via licensing the trademark he's created, a combat helmet turned upside down with a plant growing inside. He's adamant about keeping salaries reasonable and gets fired up when he talks about how some nonprofits spend too much on payroll and on things like private jets and political lobbying.

The nonprofit has no cash now, he said, but it's eligible for many millions of dollars in grants set aside for the homeless, for veterans and for urban development. It has also attracted attention from some wealthy donors, he said, adding, "we're just one wealthy person away from getting started."

Grootegoed is looking at property in Cincinnati for the first community, which he'd like to break ground for later this year.

The 35-year-old Princeton High School graduate works nearly full time on Warrior Homesteads, but he also supports himself through work as a massage therapist. He thinks he's found the "magnum opus" of his life in Warrior Homesteads if he can overcome people's inherent aversion to change.

"To make real, lasting, impactful change, you have to do something completely different," he said. "Throwing old solutions at old problems is my definition of madness."

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