KANSAS CITY, Mo. — What started as a simple hello has forged a unique friendship between a veteran experiencing homelessness, his dog Sadie and three coworkers – and resulted in the Veterans Community Project stepping in to help.
"They were just hanging out on the sidewalk, I walked by, I think Rabbit struck conversation and said, ‘Hey, how is your day going?’" Jessica Coin said, recalling her first interaction with Army veteran Michael McElravy, who goes by Rabbit.
Rabbit joined the Army at 19 years old and served from 1977-78. He was stationed in both Washington and Germany.
But after losing his job, Rabbit fell on hard times and, later, homelessness.
Rabbit said the first time he met Coin, Aaron Kelley and Stephanie Bliss, the friendship was instantaneous – for himself and for Sadie.
Bliss said there's something about Rabbit’s personality that draws people to him. For Kelley, Rabbit’s demeanor “snatches you. And by the heart – truly." Both said it’s because the Army vet is humble.
But what started as friendship, according to Coin, soon turned into the realization that some of Rabbit’s needs weren’t being met.
“I think just as friends we wanted to step in and give him what he needed,” Coin said.
Through it all, Rabbit didn’t ask for anything, according to Coin. And had only one blanket to his name. A blanket he insisted that Sadie use instead of himself.
"I think it felt different because of the way he demonstrates his love for Sadie every day," Coin said. "He has said on multiple occasions that, ‘I don't eat until she eats,’ or, ‘I might have this many resources or this many dollars, but half of that is for Sadie so I can't touch that half.’"
Coin, Bliss and Kelley first turned to social media for help, raising a few hundred dollars – enough to put both Rabbit and Sadie in a hotel for more than a week.
"I am blown away by the amount of people who have even just followed up and checked up, came and brought dinner to not only Rabbit, but... people have started bringing dinner to us as well so we can all sit down and have dinner together," Coin said.
Bliss, a veteran herself who served 12 years, said Rabbit is unlike any other person she's met in the area and never asks for a thing.
"It was always us offering and him declining several times until finally he was just like, ‘Yeah, Sadie can get some food, that's fine,’" Bliss said.
The biggest hurdle for Rabbit right now is his DD-214, a form issued to service members upon their exit from the military. It’s largely used by the U.S. Department Veterans Affairs to secure veteran benefits.
"The hardest part has been the vet stuff," Bliss said. “Getting a DD-214 is not easy, especially during COVID."
Bliss said she requested Rabbit's DD-214, but has been waiting more than one month for the VA to process the request.
"It's one of those struggles where I've kind of internalized this and gone, ‘I never realized how hard it was for someone on the street to get their life back,’" Bliss said.
41 Action news contacted the Veterans Community Project (VCP) to make them aware of Rabbit's situation. VCP now is stepping in to help. When the money that the three coworkers raised runs out, Jessica, Steph and Aaron will be back to giving Rabbit propane to keep warm and meals when they can.
"Well let's try and figure out a solution between then, I think that's very possible," Wes Williams, VCP case manager, said.
Kelly said Rabbit’s character in the face of homelessness has made her tear up at times.
"It's made me upset and I can only imagine how Rabbit's felt about it," Kelley said. “Even though there's a lot of things that should bring him down to a level that make people wanna take, make people wanna lie, make people just want to turn away from the good side, he has not veered away."
For Rabbit, people like Kelley, Coin and Bliss gave him a reason to keep pushing forward.
“I wasn't sure why they chose me... but I'm glad they did," he said.
Since 41 Action News first interviewed Rabbit, VCP has since committed to working with him until he either finds a housing situation that accepts a voucher, or a spot in the VCP tiny home community. According to VCP, as long as Rabbit stays engaged with the organization, VCP will continue to help. Rabbit has also been assigned a social worker and has met with her twice already.
The group of friends still raises money through a GoFundMe page to go towards things for Rabbit like food, shelter, hygiene supplies, and, if placement is secured with The Veterans Project, home furnishings and necessities.
In a national snapshot of veterans experiencing homelessness, the VA reported 37,085 veterans experienced homelessness in 2019, compared to 37,878 in 2018.
The number of veterans experiencing homelessness has declined 50% since 2010, according to the VA.
The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans also has resources to help.