Tony Roberts wants to solve veteran homelessness.
With a big heart, charismatic personality, and bold ideas, Roberts can claim many of the required qualifications to lead such a daunting task. But he lacked technical expertise in the areas of developing properties and building communities.
“It is going to take Ball State to make this work,” Roberts remembers deciding.
Tony chairs Steadfast Indiana, an organization he started in 2016 to help provide homes for veterans in need. This year, Steadfast partnered with students and faculty from the University’s Master of Urban Design (MUD) program to redevelop an abandoned mobile home park in Indianapolis into an attractive and affordable community for veterans.
“We want them to be proud of the place they call home,” said urban design student Brendan Cyrus, ’18.
In Indianapolis, more than 50 veterans are homeless despite having government vouchers to help them pay for housing, according to Tony.
Some live on the streets. Most live with friends and family, in spare bedrooms and on couches. Others live in motels or missions.
The problem is an inadequate supply of privately owned apartments and homes that meet quality standards for the rental-assistance program known as HUD VASH (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing.)
Roberts formed Steadfast Indiana with a simple mission: Build as much HUD VASH-eligible housing as possible.
From eyesore to perfect spot
Roberts knew the perfect spot for a pilot project — the former Shady Pines Mobile Home Park, just south of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. A California bank had taken possession of the property through foreclosure but didn’t really want it. It had become an eyesore, and the bank was under pressure to clean it up or face fines.
In spring 2019, Steadfast bought the property at an affordable price.
Enter the College of Architecture and Planning’s urban design program, a 32-credit, one-year post-professional degree that blends architecture, landscape architecture, and city planning to make places more functional — ranging in scope from streets to neighborhoods to whole cities.
The program is headquartered in Indianapolis, a diverse metro area of almost a million residents that gives students real-world experiences addressing urban problems, from homelessness to segregation along class and racial lines.
Steadfast approached Justin Ferguson, assistant dean for CAP: INDY Connector programs, and asked for help designing a community that was comfortable, promoted neighborly interaction and that blended in with surroundings.
“Urban designers think of how people experience space,” Ferguson said. “How should those homes be oriented? How should they be grouped together? How do you think through this strategically so people have a sense of attachment and a sense of community?”
Five students developed three possible designs for Steadfast. Unlike a traditional mobile home court or neighborhood, the designs did not feature a street and driveways. Instead, they maximized communal space along with pedestrian paths and a shared parking area.
The designs, Roberts said, were “outstanding.”
As of spring 2019, Steadfast was securing necessary permits and would choose one design for construction.
Plans call for replacing the run-down mobile homes with between 15 and 20 new homes.
Each house is one-bedroom and about 600 square feet. Steadfast will build the homes on-site with pre-fabricated walls called SIPs (structural insulated panels). One home will cost about $15,000 and require about two weeks of labor.
Roberts hopes the method of redeveloping abandoned properties and using efficient construction techniques can be applied nationwide.
The approach is groundbreaking in that it would help tackle urban blight and veteran homelessness at the same time.
“I want to make sure people don’t think we are only thinking of Indianapolis,” he said. “But we want to have a good solid foundation here first.”
Student Nate Robert-Eze, ’17, said he was just thankful for the opportunity to “give back.”
“It’s a breath of fresh air to get into some real community work that’s for a good cause,” he said.