In 2009, Erik Tobiason found himself with extra time in his schedule after a job change, and he wanted to fill it with giving back.

At the time, Tobiason's father, a Purple Heart veteran who served two tours of duty in Vietnam, was doing what he could to help fellow veterans in Bend, Oregon. Wanting to increase the potential impact of his dad's efforts, Tobiason suggested they start a nonprofit together to better leverage the local community and volunteer resources. Through their organization, Bend Heroes Foundation, they began supporting veterans in a number of ways, including organizing Honor Flights to transport veterans to Washington, D.C. in order to visit war memorials.

But one issue affecting veterans continued to trouble Tobiason.

“We saw the growing need for homeless services for veterans in the area, even before the COVID-19 pandemic," says Tobiason, a financial advisor in RBC Wealth Management's Bend branch. “And nothing was getting done about it. So we said, 'Let's tackle something, let's go for it.'"

After reading about several other communities in the United States building tiny houses for homeless veterans, Tobiason set his sights on creating something similar for the Bend area.

“If other people are doing it, we can do it too," he recalls thinking.

A community effort

The project, which would become known as the Central Oregon Veterans Village, involved the development of 15 tiny homes grouped together around a community building. Tobiason was involved at nearly every step of the project—which took close to three years to complete—including raising funds from public and private donors and working with politicians to draft a law addressing obstacles related to local building codes. Oregon House Bill 4212, which passed in summer 2020, removed land-use barriers to building emergency shelters such as the veterans village.

Local professionals contributed to the construction of the houses, but most of the work was done by volunteers. Tobiason worked with and trained area youth organizations and recruited other volunteers from around the community, all of whom put in time and effort to help make the structures a reality.

The village, operated by Central Oregon Veterans Outreach (COVO), a local nonprofit providing outreach services to veterans in need, welcomed its first residents on Veterans Day 2021. COVO provides residents with health services, social service programs, employment training, skill-building and more, to help them get back on their feet.

Giving veterans hope

J.W. Terry, COVO's executive director, says a number of factors have led to the increase in homelessness over the past few years. “The pandemic, with people not being able to work, plus the high cost of housing and a lack of low-income housing in the area, all contributed to it," Terry says.

For veterans who have faced those difficult life challenges, the village has already had a noticeable impact, according to Terry. “Going from not having any hope in your life at all to the way they laugh and smile and are helping one another, I think the project sets a high bar," he says.

Despite the amount of time and work involved, Tobiason says there's no reason the village can't be replicated by other communities throughout the state or country.

“We did it, but we knew we could do it because other communities had done it before us," he says. “At the beginning it seemed like an impossible task, but if you rally your local community, they'll support it, and you can get it done. It just takes that first step."

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