A Sustainable Solution to Veteran Homelessness

Header image featuring a solar panel and the silhouette of a wolf.

Edited by Allie Long

This article is based on a series of interviews I conducted with Drew Robertson and the Mattersville team. They were kind enough to provide me with their time and trust me with the retelling of their story, which I will share with you now.

“Do you want to just start with an introduction of who you are and how you got started with Mattersville?”

Six months ago, I began a series of interviews with Drew Robertson, the founder and executive director of Mattersville, a program and sustainable community designed to help homeless veterans suffering from PTSD. Upon returning to civilian life, veterans often find themselves in environments that trigger and stigmatize their PTSD (i.e., big cities). Mattersville places veterans in a new setting with initiatives constructed to encourage growth and self-centering. They are an off-the-grid, solar-powered, mental health certified, and environmentally conscious organization, complete with a wolf sanctuary.

Mattersville developed as a reaction to the failure of Veterans Affairs to adequately address the needs of servicemen and women when they return home. In the VA’s 2019 annual report, they observed 6,139 veteran suicides in 2017. For Drew, that statistic is more than just a number; in 2013, he lost his best friend Randy Hansen to PTSD-related suicide.

“I didn’t know what I know now,” Drew explained. “There were no resources for me. There were no resources for him.”

Drew’s journey towards Mattersville began that day. Together with his ragtag team of volunteers, the Bearded Villains, and the many partnerships he made along the way, Drew set out to “create sustainable communities where veterans can thrive.” He signed a 50-year lease on a piece of land in Sedalia, Colorado — land that had been completely devastated by squatters in the four years prior.

“We went in hazmat for, like, the first week.”

To date, the Mattersville team has cleared out over a hundred thousand pounds of waste, including tires, furniture, and drug paraphernalia. Kristyn Hansen (no relation to Drew’s friend, Randy Hansen), the program’s chief operations officer, arrived on day one of clean-up with Drew.

“I was 205 pounds, and I lost 75 pounds.” Between losing meals from moving toxic detritus and the daily heavy-lifting, Kristyn underwent her own physical transformation as they essentially terraformed the land over the course of a year. “So, I call it the Sedalia diet.”

Drew and his team have also faced some self-imposed challenges as well. “Being a sustainable organization, it’s been more of a challenge to remove the waste, because of the nature in which we are willing to remove [it].” For Drew, this means recycling materials onsite, burning or reusing wood, and ensuring that the material that leaves the property is going to the proper disposal site.

“We have a rule: If you need a construction supply, whether it be lumber, electrical parts, plumbing parts–before we will go and buy it–you have to walk the property to see if you can find it first.”

December 2019 was a busy time for Mattersville. Thanks to Ben Corliss, a co-director of Mattersville’s animal care, an entire pack of wolves and wolfdogs would also be moving into the community.

“Why wolves?” I asked Drew.

“It’s able to fund everything. The wolf tours alone can pay off the recurring monthly costs of maintaining this community.” Through Mattersville’s Heroes and Hybrids program, anyone can sign up for a veteran-led wolf tour and learn more about these amazing animals as well as the relationships they have with the community’s vets.

Now, they had to contend with squatter trash, community development, and building enclosures for the furry new tenants in town. Fortunately, they didn’t have to do it alone.

“We’re just the richest community when it comes to sweat equity,” Drew said, referring to Mattersville’s enormous showing of volunteer support.

Heroes and Hybrids

Mattersville’s Sedalia property is situated across from the gorgeous Roxborough State Park and smackdab in the middle of the Rocky Mountains. When you sign up for a tour through the Heroes and Hybrids program, you’re signing up for an afternoon with wolves in the Colorado highlands.

“Our wolf pens are spread all across the mountain,” Drew explained. “So, you’re going on a nature hike as well.”

Pack 22

While the veterans and staff at Mattersville are extremely grateful for their adopted, four-legged family, Ben exposed the sad truth underlying their residence in Sedalia. A couple times a week, Ben, Drew, and the other directors receive calls from shelters and individuals, pleading with them to take more wolfdogs. These former pets came from homes ill-prepared for such a responsibility and unwilling to adapt.

“They basically think that it would be really cool to have a dog that’s part wolf.”

But anyone who has spent time with them can bear witness to the fact that wolfdogs are not dogs. They’re fiercely independent with complex personalities, and as Dylan Matkowsky, director of sustainability, put it, “they deserve a whole new level of respect.”

For this reason, Mattersville maintains a group of “elite wolf-handling specialists,” known as Pack 22. The number 22 has long been a rallying cry within the veteran community, alluding to an oft-quoted statistic of 22 veteran suicides per day in the US. Drew opened up to me about the difficulty of retelling Randy Hansen’s story and the pain of reliving it, but he does so because it helps his community, saying it’s “tragic when you think about it happening 22 times a day to 22 different families.”

Vets Saving Pets

Sedalia is Mattersville’s flagship community; soon, they’ll be expanding to Hartsel, Colorado, where they have 35 acres awaiting them an hour-and-a-half away from Fort Carson. In Hartsel, Drew plans on building 100 tiny homes on the property and launching his Vets Saving Pets program, a foster-care program for the pets of active-duty personnel.

Military bases have a huge animal problem during mass deployments. Active-duty personnel on the base will often acquire pets during their stay; they take in animals and integrate them into their families, but as soon as there’s a mass deployment, shelters in the surrounding area are overrun with military pets.

“What happens is a lot of them end up having to let them go in the literal sense of the word — they just take them out, and they let them go somewhere, because they have no home to provide them.” It’s tragic, but as Drew points out, “they have no choice. They’re leaving.”

Even if they are admitted to a shelter, Drew says, there’s a “30, 40 % chance that that animal is going to get euthanized” due to the influx of animals at the shelter.

The Sustainable Solution to Ending Veteran Homelessness

When you think about what it means to be “sustainable,” what do you picture? Solar panels? A wind turbine? Greta Thunberg? At its core, a sustainable program is just one that can be maintained in and of itself; if it’s truly sustainable, then it can carry on indefinitely — a closed circuit.

Sustainability at Mattersville boils down to three key ingredients:

  • Environmental Sustainability: Can the program function with minimal environmental impact?
  • Mental Health Sustainability: Are the emotional, spiritual, and social needs of the community and staff met? Does the community adequately care for individuals in “crisis mode,” and does it work adequately to prevent a mental health crisis from occurring?
  • Financial Sustainability: To what degree does the program pay for itself?

These three pillars inform every initiative at Mattersville. Take Heroes and Hybrids for example: Their wolf sanctuary not only plays a vital role in the conservation of an at-risk species, but the animals themselves are trained as emotional support animals for the veterans. The veterans and staff then orchestrate wolf tours to support the program financially, covering the recurring monthly costs of running Mattersville.

It’s Not Easy Being Green

“So, this specific project is going to be tricky, because we don’t have… we don’t have a budget really. We just have a certain amount of panels.”

That’s Mattersville’s director of sustainability Dylan Matkowsky talking about their ongoing solar installation project. The Rocky Mountain Wildlife Foundation, an organization that had been similarly off-grid, donated solar panels to Mattersville when they shut down in December. There was just one small problem…

“Generally, solar panels are never moved,” Dylan explained. “But in this case, we had to move them. And there’s not a lot of information on how to do that properly.”

The jury-rigging commenced. In the back of a “dusty old trailer,” Dylan and another member of the team constructed a “bed” where the solar panels could lie — ostensibly protected — as the two volunteers transported the panels to Mattersville.

Their principal concern during the trip was preventing microcracks; even the smallest crack could compromise the efficacy of the panels and reduce their overall productivity. For a nonprofit like Mattersville, a little efficiency lost can signal huge ramifications over the long term.

“In this case, we made do with what we could. We took a bunch of trash and made a scaffolding bed out of it, and I think it worked incredibly well, because the panels were in great condition when we got them there.”

Since then, he’s been working on an innovative approach to tiny home solar installation. Since the home was already built when Mattersville received it, Dylan is designing a detachable solar awning that can travel easily and deploy readily when the home is stationed. The solar awning will power a battery bank; if all goes according to plan, Mattersville will be putting excess energy back into the grid.

A Tiny Answer to a Big Question

Both Dylan and Drew believe that tiny homes could play a big role in ending homelessness, not just within the veteran community, but for the general population as well.

“There are many people without homes or the ability to afford homes,” Dylan told me. “Tiny homes have an amazing solution for that.”

Unfortunately, the idea of tiny homes as a solution to the problem of homelessness is bogged down by people’s conceptions of the problem itself. In Colorado, the idea of tiny homes has become conflated with their notion of tent cities. This has led to the adoption of troublesome legislation in certain towns, including Sedalia, where it is illegal for people to live in tiny homes. In order to comply with the county, Drew and the team will be taking their tiny homes to Hartsel once the property is ready.

Mattersville has become ingrained in the local tiny home culture. Operation Tiny Home reached out to Mattersville about a “tiny home that need[ed] to be donated on the Las Vegas showroom floor,” built by the National Association of Home Builders.

“They didn’t have a beneficiary of it a week before it needed to be taken off the showroom floor,” Drew laughed. “So, they called me up and said, ‘Hey, you guys want a tiny home?’”

“Hell yeah,” Drew replied.

With partnerships like Operation Tiny Home and the People’s Tiny House Festival, Drew is positioning himself on the frontline of the tiny-home revolution.

Mental Health Sustainability

Before I talked to Drew, I’d never heard someone refer to mental health in terms of sustainability. Saying so feels like a commentary on a society’s responsibility to its constituents; I suppose it is difficult to sell maintenance — better to be reactive than proactive.

Since the current model isn’t working well for a lot of people (i.e. the 6,139 veterans that died from suicide in 2017), Drew’s taking a different approach. Yes, his staff is trained to deescalate and direct veterans in crisis mode to the right resources, but they also receive training on preventative care. Every staff member will eventually be required to have this training, and now they can get certified as well.

Mental Health First-Aid Classes

Mattersville’s Civilian Peer Mentor Director, Lydia Reed, along with Kristyn Hansen, received their mental-health first-aid instructor training and now offer classes onsite.

“After experiencing it personally…” Lydia’s brother, a veteran, died by suicide three years ago. The loss eventually led her to Mattersville, seeking out an organization where she could help other veterans. “[…] I felt that if I had had more knowledge of how to help someone, maybe I could’ve gotten them through it successfully.”

When Lydia told me about her brother, I couldn’t help but think of Drew during our initial interview, when we discussed Randy Hansen’s suicide.

“I didn’t know what I know now. I didn’t know to do anything.” In a way, survivor’s guilt is a keystone motivator that drives Mattersville. Many of the staff members have lost loved ones to PTSD-related suicide; it’s impossible for anyone not to wonder what could’ve happened had they had known what they know now, but the blame is not something that rests on a single person’s shoulders.

“There’s nothing but stigmas out there that tell us that something’s wrong with them or that they’re crazy.”

Drew wanted to create an environment removed from these stigmas. In this off-the-grid microcosm, he can do just that.

“If somebody’s in crisis, we’re training [our staff] to respond to it and how to respond to it properly,” Drew later explained, emphasizing the importance of paying attention to key warning signs and avoiding escalation.

The course is eight hours long, and teaches the ALGEE Action Plan, a tool for assessing risk of self-harm or risk to others:

“A mental health first-aid class–it does things to people,” Drew said solemnly. “It does good things for people, but it makes you really reflect on the things that you’ve said to people in the past.”

Pack Healing

Much of Mattersville’s social structure mirrors the wolves’ pack dynamic. Everyone is meant to feel like part of a family, but for that to happen, members of the community must be amenable to opening up.

“We have to constantly remind them that they’re not alone anymore,” Kristyn explained. “They don’t have to live like that anymore.”

“They’re a part of a family now.” And at Mattersville, that means being part of the pack. Pack healing works for them because so many members of the staff and community are working through their own individual traumas.

“They know I’m not just feeding them what they want to hear,” Kristyn said. “They’re able to relate to me in a way where I become real. There’s all of a sudden that trust that’s formed where they can actually tell me what’s going on.”

This allows for the dissolution of the “us/them” dynamic that might otherwise have threatened the well-being of the community.

“Do you think that in working with other people that have experienced similar traumas it’s helped you understand your own story a little bit better?”

“Yeah,” Drew agreed.

“Absolutely,” Kristyn confirmed. “One hundred percent.”

Kristyn also acknowledged their good fortune in acquiring the wolves despite the initial investment of time and resources.

“The cards couldn’t have fallen any better in our favor as far as bringing on the wolves.”

“Well, that’s where the term pack healing came into play,” Drew expounded. “We all go through this together, whatever the situation may be.”

Emotional Support Animals

Many of the fundamentals of Mattersville’s infrastructure were directly influenced by Drew’s experience of caring for his best friend while he coped with PTSD.

“He didn’t want to be alone,” Drew remembered. “He just didn’t want to be around people.”

This insight became the seed that would later blossom into Heroes and Hybrids and Vets Saving Pets. Animal companionship bridged the gap between needing a comforting presence and removing the anxieties of societal expectations. An emotional support animal requires nothing in the way of social norms. In return for care and affection, they provide purpose.

“It helps me center myself.” Randy (not to be confused with Drew’s childhood friend, Randy Hansen) told me during our interview. Randy, one of the veterans living in the community, moved to Mattersville after volunteering with the organization for a few months. He followed the wolves from the Rocky Mountain Wildlife Foundation, where he volunteered alongside other members of the Bearded Villains.

When I asked Randy if he’d made any special connections with the animals, he told me he’d become particularly close with Kody after seeing a little bit of himself in the animal.

“He deals with a lot of anxiety. But when people show support and they show him love, he calms down. He just wants to feel loved.” According to Randy, Kody just wanted people to know that “hey, I’m still here.”

“When you go over to him and you pet him, he’s a lovebug; he’ll roll over on his back and expose his tummy. That just means he trusts you.”

Through Kody’s transformation, Randy found an analogy for his own healing. “Bringing all the toxic stuff or the dark stuff you deal with to the surface allows you to break down, analyze that darkness, and find the areas of potential growth […].”

Randy empathized heavily with the wolves. He saw his own anxieties and traumas reflected in these animals, and in caring for the wolves, the veterans have been able to start caring for themselves.

Off-the-grid

Drew’s process for designing sustainable systems involved a series of “what if” scenarios in which he charted out what his recourse would be for every problem the program might encounter. In his own words, he was designing “multimode systems,” — or, numerous overlapping mechanisms which could step in at each point of failure.

So, what happens if the power goes out on the property? The back-up generator turns on. Crack in the solar panel? Fortunately, the wind turbine is there to pick up the slack.

Besides, “it takes you out of society where all the stigmas lay. Cost is cheaper, there’s more space for the vets, and then it also takes those that are going through substance abuse away from access.”

Mattersville is a safe haven for veterans, putting some distance between themselves and the triggers that can make recovery nearly impossible.

Mattersville’s remote location in beautiful rural Colorado serves yet another purpose: eliciting awe. In an article published by Outside Magazine last year, they reviewed a study on the lasting effects of experiencing “awe” in nature as it related to stress levels and general well-being. The study by UC San Francisco specifically looked at “military veterans suffering from PTSD,” asking them to chronicle their levels of awe during a one-to-four day white water expedition.

The results? Those who self-reported the highest levels of awe also recorded the lowest stress levels and highest overall well-being in the weeks to come. It turns out that there are observable, lasting positive effects of having a breathtaking experience in nature. In the case of Mattersville, by building off-grid in the Rocky Mountains and surrounding themselves with awe-inspiring animals, they captured that lightning in a bottle.

Meaningful Work

Back when Mattersville was just an idea, it was clear that it would require a tremendous amount of effort to bring to fruition. Even without a literal mountain of squatter trash to move, the project was complicated and nuanced; to anyone else, this hill might have appeared too steep to climb. But for Drew, the work was a necessary part of the healing.

“You stick people in the middle of nowhere, bored as hell, who are looking for socialization but no finding it […]. It could end terribly.”

So, they needed a common aim. What if the veterans living onsite became an integral part of maintaining the program?

“If their whole purpose is just to keep cutting out recurring monthly costs, like energy bills or food costs, because they’re doing it all onsite, well… what would happen then?”

Suddenly, the volume of work generated by the pursuit of total sustainability became part of the reason to do it. The ends and the means converged, and suddenly the process was given purpose.

“That’s going to be a lot of work,” Drew acknowledged. “Well, good! Because they need to be busy–there needs to be purpose.”

Drew talked about “repurposing” individuals in a unique way. He wanted to relight the sparks in people that were extinguished due to traumatic episodes.

Another difference in the type of work offered by Mattersville is the freedom to choose what you do. The denizens of the community all abide by “Drew’s Rule.” According to Drew’s Rule, if you pitch an idea for a project, you are responsible for seeing that project to the end.

Drew’s Rule has often had some unintended consequences.

“This is what always freaking happens.” Drew was quick to clarify that he meant “freaking” in a good way. “People show up and they realize their value to this organization whether they get paid or not. They get to pursue their ideas and their dreams a little bit with what we’re doing. They often sync up.”

In the past month, Mattersville lost power due to issues with its electrical breaker. Drew petitioned an electrician, Nate, to assist with the repair. Nate, meanwhile, had been working on his own project, converting an old school bus into a schoolie — a revamped home-on-wheels essentially. When Nate arrived at Mattersville and saw what they were doing on the property — saw just how many recyclables were left by the squatters — he asked Drew if he could stay on as their inhouse electrician while he worked on his schoolie.

Drew was immediately on board.

“Everybody gets to be a mad scientist.”

“They’ve got these ideas in their head, and it’s almost like they’ve been waiting for somebody to just tell them, ‘What are you waiting for? Go make it happen.’”

In practice, Drew gives them the land and access to the resources on the property; then, he turns them loose. Suddenly, these “mad scientists” have playgrounds of their own.

This philosophy already bore fruit: Dylan designed a detachable solar awning and Jake built a chicken coop (a veritable “chicken condo,” or so I’ve heard). I asked Randy how he planned to take advantage of Drew’s Rule, and he told me that one day he would like to start a Mattersville radio station, where he could “[put] positivity all over the airwaves” and use music as therapy.

Financial Sustainability

When you’re reliant on donations and grants for your funding, driving down costs becomes priority number one, especially when you’re faced with exorbitant energy bills from the Intermountain Rural Electric Association (IREA), a co-op that leases energy from another company and runs it all the way out to rural Colorado. They’re like the flash boys of the energy world.

Partnerships have also been instrumental in Mattersville’s success. “Some of the first partnerships we ended up making were with mental health centers around Colorado.” Jefferson Center for Mental Health helped Mattersville get a grant to fund Drew’s, Kristyn’s, and Lydia’s certifications as mental-health first-aid instructors.

They receive clothing donations as well. What they don’t use, they wash, sort into kits, and give to homeless persons on the street. Grocery stores donate meat for the wolves, and Mattersville is beginning to grow food onsite to feed the community.

Impacts of COVID-19 and the Future of Mattersville

Mattersville, like many nonprofits, has taken a blow during the pandemic. Originally, they had scheduled trucks to haul away the many tons of waste they had accumulated, but this was delayed due to travel restrictions.

Their volunteer pool has also diminished, but Matty the wolf pup rekindled volunteer interest during the quarantine. Otherwise, Mattersville has been able to weather this storm thanks to the support of the community and the team’s unwavering dedication.

In these trying times, it can be difficult to look ahead with a sense of purpose; however, Mattersville afforded members of the community a sense of optimism about the future.

Randy said he’s looking forward to the continued support he and the other vets have been receiving, as well as constructing the Hartsel property. On a more personal level, Randy was excited to move his recording studio to Mattersville and produce music again.

To get information for veterans interested in the program and/or curious about the application process, I checked in with Randy since he was the most recent addition to the community.

“What was the application process like?”

“It was pretty smooth actually.” Randy had volunteered with Mattersville in the weeks leading up to his acceptance as an official resident, and he believes this definitely helped. Whereas the VA felt adversarial, Randy presented Mattersville as an organization willing to collaborate with veterans to find living arrangements that best suit them; there is a difference in intention.

“If you were talking to a veteran that was considering reaching out to Mattersville, what would you want them to know?”

“I would say that this place thrives on compassion and empathy. We feel your pain, and we’re going to do our best to resolve it.” Randy stressed again the importance of self-evaluation and growth.

Meet the Pack

If you’d like an opportunity to meet the pack, check out their website. Once you’re there, you can:

  • Get involved: volunteer with the team and help build enclosures for wolves and clean up the property. Have a unique skill to offer? They could probably put you to good use.
  • Heroes and Hybrids: Take a wolf tour!
  • Get Mental Health Certified: Learn how to respond to and prevent a mental health emergency.
  • Land donations: Do you have extra land? Mattersville may be able to clean it up and put it to good use.

Remember, if you’re a veteran in need of assistance, don’t be afraid to reach out. Drew and his team are incredibly responsive and willing to work with you to your benefit.

One final thanks to Mattersville. I had a lot of fun working with such an inspiring and passionate bunch of people, and I really feel like I’ve made some lifelong connections over the course of these articles. I look forward to seeing you all grow as an organization and hope we stay connected for years to come.

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Zachary Turner

I write about the environment and climate change from Raleigh, NC. 🍁 🌳 ☀️