Meet the Veteran Who Builds Tiny Houses for Other Vets in Need: 'We Are Offering a Hand'
"They don't want handouts, but we are offering a hand," Donnie Davis tells PEOPLE
When Donnie Davis kept hearing the alarming suicide statistics for veterans afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder (22 a day, according to the VA’s 2012 Suicide Data Report), a thought kept crossing his mind: “Someone’s got to do something.”
In 2016, Davis realized that he would be one of the “someones.” Along with a good friend, the Air Force veteran and former police officer launched Operation Safe Haven, to provide housing for veterans who need help getting back on their feet.
“The whole idea is to give them a chance to stabilize,” Davis tells PEOPLE. “They don’t want handouts, but we are offering a hand.”
Operation Safe Haven offers help in the form of tiny houses within a 277-acre lakeside campground in Franklinville, New Jersey. Each newly-built, 300-square-foot house resembles a log cabin, and comes complete with new furnishings, bedding, kitchen supplies and other gear — all offered at no charge to the veteran.
“We supply everything,” Davis says. “Nothing is used. Unless it’s brand new, we won’t take it.”
The project is personal for Davis, 42, who worked as an honor guard at funerals for fallen service members during his time in the Air Force. Later, as a police officer in Maryland, he encountered situations that left him with “stuff,” he says.
“We don’t call it PTSD,” he explains. “We call it ‘stuff.’ ”
The experience taught him, among other things, that “when you meet people who are homeless or who have PTSD, you have to help them.”
Veterans who come to the haven can expect to live there anywhere from a couple weeks to a couple years, depending on their needs.
Organizers set up each vet on the buddy system, while also steering them into counseling and helping with job placement.
“We want to get them in a good job, not a seasonable job, with real benefits,” Davis says.
Local unions have promised to help with placing interested veterans in apprenticeship programs to start them on their way back to self-sustainment.
The project sprang into action three years ago, when someone suggested that Davis buy the campground for his church, Amazing Grace Ministries, where he is pastor. Davis didn’t want to construct a church building, but he saw the campground as a great place to house other veterans.
Davis bought the property and, along with friend Ron Koller, started a GoFundMe campaign to help launch the project.
In just over a year, Operation Safe Haven has reaped more than $230,000 — and climbing.
The team now has four micro-houses, two certified therapy horses and is breeding service dogs. A fifth house is in the process of being built.
“We’re getting all the infrastructure in place right now,” says Ron Koller, a New Jersey police detective and Army veteran who helped found the project and now oversees operations.
“We’re trying not to generate any costs,” Koller says. “It’s all volunteers who work on this.”
All applicants to live at the haven must be checked out to make sure they truly are veterans, a process that takes 35-40 days.
Additionally, because the facility is not equipped to do drug detoxification, prospective residents must be drug-free.
“We do urinalysis checks,” Koller says.
Davis, Koller, and their legion of volunteers can’t wait to roll out the welcome mat.
“When we bought this, someone asked how I am going to do this, and I said I don’t know,” Davis tells PEOPLE. “It’s just faith. Everyone’s coming together and supporting this, and it’s great.”