Tiny houses that are no more than 600 square feet have been trending since the early 2000s, and now various prefabs and custom builds have popped up in backyards and rolling acres across the U.S.

One tiny house project in Rapid City has an ambitious mission. Its goal is to improve veterans’ job skills and lives by teaching them to build compact homes.

The tiny-house manufacturing facility is the brainchild of Dave Gates of Rapid City. Gates is a Vietnam War veteran, an entrepreneur and the host of his own outdoor TV show. When Gates’ PTSD from Vietnam reoccurred 40 years after his tour of duty there, the trauma inspired him to assist other veterans.

That was the beginning of Veteran’s Helping Hands Project, a nonprofit organization Gates launched in 2018. The nonprofit’s initiative to manufacture tiny houses and provide job skills training is known as the VSAC Project, which stands for Veterans Service & Assistance Coalition.

Gates is in the process of raising $21,000 to open a manufacturing facility and another $28,000 to cover expenses for building the first tiny house.

“We haven't heard of another nonprofit taking this route. So, if you are looking for a different way to help the vet and say ‘thank you for your service,’ this might be the way to help by donating towards building one of these homes,” Gates said.

The Veteran’s Helping Hands Project website, operationvhhp.com/tiny-house-project.html, details costs for doors, windows, flooring, roofing and other building materials. Donations can be made through the website. If desired, donors can earmark their contributions to be used for specific items for a tiny house, Gates said.

“Right now, we’re looking for money to build the first house, and we’re not going to pull the trigger on renting or leasing the building (for a manufacturing facility) until we have the money to build the first one,” he said.

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The property Gates hopes to rent or lease for his manufacturing plant is a former gym on Samco Road, he said. The space would be large enough for building two tiny houses at a time, which is Gates’ initial goal.

Gates designed a floor plan for a 10-foot-wide, 28-foot-long tiny house that has a living room, bedroom, bathroom and kitchenette. The basic design could be modified to include a covered porch and/or a laundry-utility room-pantry. Gates envisions the houses with steel roofs and customizable options for exterior siding. Gates’ goal is to create a home that can be purchased for about $80,000, which would include the house, lot and infrastructure, he said.

The VSAC Project, Gates said, would employ veterans for 30 days to a year at a time through the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Compensated Work Therapy Program. Each veteran will learn up to three job skills, such as electrical, welding, plumbing or other construction skills. Under the supervision of a journeyman, veterans will build the tiny homes. By the time they leave the Compensated Work Therapy Program and the VSAC Project, veterans are expected to be trained and qualified to obtain jobs.

Gates anticipates the VSAC Project would employ about five veterans at a time to build two tiny houses. When the homes are sold, Gates plans to use the profits to create a fund to help veterans with car repairs and other expenses.

Beyond workforce development and affordable housing, Gates created the VSAC Project and Veteran’s Helping Hands Project to target an even bigger issue — suicide.

According to the most recent report published by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs in 2016, about 20 veterans die by suicide every day. The suicide rate has been rising among younger veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The point is to get a veteran feeling better about himself, because when he came back (from deployment), people patted him on the back and then they go their way, and the veteran sinks,” Gates said.

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