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Style: Folsom | El Dorado Hills

Kavanah: Building the Foundation for a Better Future

Oct 11, 2018 09:06AM

Three years ago, Navy veteran Shawn Barnhart lived in a tent along Arcade Creek. Despite 20 years working in construction, Barnhart couldn’t find a job, and with no address, his military benefits were being withheld. As he puts it, he was “living off the goodness of others.” 

Though nearly penniless, he volunteered to work for Habitat for Humanity. Around the same time, real estate broker Jim Quaschnick awoke one morning at 3 a.m. with a vision to build small houses for homeless veterans. He immediately sketched the shelter’s exterior details. A month later, Michael Estes visited a building trade class at an area high school and pondered ways he might interest more students in construction careers. 

In classic synchronicity, these three paths converged: Quaschnick, his wife, Lisa, and Estes founded Kavanah—“intention” or “direction of the heart” in Hebrew—a Folsom-based nonprofit that partners with schools to build tiny houses for homeless veterans. 

Currently, eight local schools are building the homes and teaching skills such as framing, roofing, hanging windows and doors, and installing countertops, among others. The schools provide the instructors and equipment, and Kavanah supplies building materials then trucks and installs the finished houses to their permanent sites, often church grounds. The students must follow Kavanah’s blueprints but have creative license to add what Lisa calls “their own sugar and spice.” Several graduates have found jobs with builders, and three have entered college programs to study construction.

In December 2016, Barnhart, through his Habitat connection, became the first resident of a tiny house. Five houses are now occupied with 12 more under construction. Kavanah also rents four bedrooms in a full-size house to homeless vets. More than 20 schools are on a waiting list for the program, which will expand as money becomes available. With 3,000-plus homeless people in the Sacramento area, according to county statistics, the need is great. Initially self-funded, the Quaschnicks now operate the nonprofit with grants and donations of property, building materials, and cash. 

Tiny houses are, indeed, tiny—84 square feet, small enough to erect without a permit. With insulated walls, enough solar energy donated by SMUD for two lights and a phone, locking doors and windows, and a twin bed and storage, the units are designed to provide privacy, shelter, and safety. For bathroom and kitchen facilities, the veterans must rely on the generosity of churches, friends or, often, gym memberships. The veterans pay monthly rent starting at $70-$125 and are expected to volunteer in the community. “The houses are meant to be stepping stones only,” says Lisa. “This is not a handout.”

Three months after Barnhart moved into his tiny house, he became a Kavanah employee. Thanks to the program, he’s managed to throw away his EBT card and progressed from having “zero money” to being the proprietor of his own company, Barnhart Construction. He also owns a car—that, he notes, is “paid for”—and has a bank account and credit cards. What’s more, he transitioned out of his tiny house after only nine months. For Barnhart, Kavanah, he says, was “life-changing.”

by Linda Holderness  //  photos by DANTE FONTANA 

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