The first couple in the Las Vegas Valley to move into a home made out of a shipping container met in the line at the food bank.
Donna Charles, 65, and Robert Caris, 63, were the first two to line up on a September morning at the food bank at Share Village, formerly known as Veterans Village, in downtown Las Vegas.
At first they shared stories about life on the streets, but the conversations soon began to pick up steam.
“Then we came just to see each other,” said Charles, a fair-skinned, weathered blonde with light blue eyes and wispy bangs.
Both had been married before, so they wanted to take it slow.
“I was cautious,” said Caris, who had been single for 20 years, as he scooted his wheelchair through the parking lot, a gray ponytail dangling down his back.
The courtship began with him bringing Charles a cup of 7-Eleven coffee every morning with two sugars, two creams and a splash of mocha and vanilla. A couple months later, he asked her to lunch.
‘I feel like a little kid’
“He was a gentleman,” she said. “With him, I know I’ll be safe. Just every day, it’s a different feeling. I see him every day, it’s exciting. I feel like a little kid.”
Caris asked her to marry him in December and gave her a ring bearing a heart-shaped gem. They’ll see their first home together on Monday morning, when the 10-unit container park will be unveiled at Share Village.
As the couple got to know one another better, they discovered they had a lot in common. She was married to a Marine Corps major for 30 years; he was a retired Army sergeant.
They both liked football, though their allegiances were at odds. He’s a Dallas Cowboys fan; she liked the Washington Redskins.
“I’m the Cowboys, she’s the Indians,” he quipped.
Charles moved into Share Village in April, after three years on and off living on the streets. Her husband died in 2015, and her daughter died unexpectedly in 2016. With no living family she drifted into alcoholism. She swept the floors and mopped tables at McDonald’s for a spare hamburger. After Help of Southern Nevada helped secure her disability, Social Security and military spousal benefits, she moved into her one-bedroom at Share Village.
She met Caris a few months later.
“We just couldn’t stop talking, we were always comfortable,” she said.
The Village by Sands Cares, named for the major contributor to the project, has been under construction for more than a year.
A vision on a sea cruise
But Share Village CEO Arnold Stalk said his vision for the project dates to the 1980s, when the cruise ship he was on docked in Mexico and he saw shipping containers stacked up in the port.
“I call it the Instant Built House,” he said. “It’s a cookie-cutter; I think it’s an absolute prototype of what can be done with affordable housing and the whole roadmap is there for anybody who wants to develop it.”
Stalk says he plans to build out about 50 more units, with at least 10 reserved for veterans, which was his mission when he began pushing the plan.
The units get power from solar panels and have efficient toilets that grind up waste and push it to the sewage system faster. The units also can be picked up by forklift and shipped overnight if needed. They have cook tops, refrigerators and microwaves and are equipped with furniture and bedding.
There’s a laundry on site for the residents to use.
The materials and labor needed to convert the containers were donated by Martin Harris Construction and Builders United Foundation. Dozens of other organizations also contributed.
The units come in two sizes — 20-by-8-feet and 40-by-8-feet — and cost $27,000 and $37,000, respectively, to purchase and renovate. Stalk said city permits cost another $10,000 per unit.
The rent for the larger unit, which is 320 square feet, is $650 a month including utilities and the smaller one, 160 square feet, is $550 a month. Those who have federally subsidized vouchers will pay 30 percent of their income toward the rent.
All of the units are compliant with the federal Americans With Disabilities Act; which is important for Caris and Charles. He uses a wheelchair because of severe degenerative bone disease. She uses a walker to cushion her deteriorating bones.
They plan to get married the same place they met, and have asked Stalk to give Charles away.
“We met here, got engaged here, fell in love here. It’s like a fairy tale,” Charles said. “Every minute counts; I’m not getting any younger.”
The Review-Journal is owned by the family of Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson. Sands Cares is the company’s charitable arm.