He Built A $70 Million T-Shirt Empire. Now He’s Building A Village For Homeless Vets


In the city of Savannah, Georgia, an Army veteran and entrepreneur has a plan to end veteran homelessness in his community. It starts with building a village of tiny homes.

"The idea that any of us could be homeless at any given point in time, just one paycheck away, it resonates," Tyler Merritt, a former Apache pilot and special operations air mission commander, told Task & Purpose.

Merritt is behind the veterans village project, which is aiming to create as many as 24 single-occupant tiny homes in Savannah, Georgia. It's spearheaded by the Nine Line Foundation, a veterans charity he founded as an off-shoot from his company, Nine Line Apparel.

"I've been damn near bankrupt and upside down, one paycheck away, just like everyone else," said Merritt, the CEO of Nine Line Apparel. Founded in 2012, the popular veterans' clothing company has recorded approximately $70 million in sales since it began, and roughly $24 million in just the last year.

"If you lose your family and friends and hit rock bottom, there still has to be some organization out there that can give a hand up, not a hand out."

To date, they've raised roughly $300,000 to support the initiative and built 10 tiny homes, with the goal of moving in occupants within the next several months, and plan to construct the remaining buildings by year's end, Merritt told Task & Purpose.

The idea is to use the village as transitional housing where the participants can partner with counselors and career coaches, and eventually find gainful employment, before moving into a place of their own.

"If I provided 50 permanent structures, it puts a dent, but it doesn't cycle people through, it's not sustainable," he said. "There's something about earning that makes it so it's worthwhile. They'll find meaning in getting up in the day because they have a job."

A tiny home created by the Nine Line Foundation.Photo courtesy of Nine Line Foundation

In the past, the foundation has built custom homes for severely wounded veterans, focusing on helping one person at a time, "to help them return to some sense of normalcy," Merritt explained.

But the individuals they were helping in those cases already had a built-in support network of friends and family, Merritt said. "The individuals that we're dealing with now, have none."

"For us, the first step is getting an individual off the street," Merritt said, before adding that "it's housing first, not housing only."

Nine Line Foundation is partnering with Chatham-Savannah Authority for the Homeless on its veteran village initiative, along with Georgia Southern University, which will provide vocational training and career counseling, Merritt said.

Local nonprofits and businesses have rogered up to provide food and clothing to the program, and the initiative's sponsors include the Joe Marchese Commercial Construction & Development, The Josh Reddick Foundation, Coca-Cola, Blu Site Solutions, and Food Lion.

Tyler Merritt, CEO of Nine Line Apparel and the founder of the Nine Line Foundation.Photo courtesy of Nine Line Foundation

To make all this work, Merritt said he intends to pass on the federal funding typically set aside for homeless initiatives in favor of volunteer-work, donations, collaboration between charities, fundraisers, and sponsorship.

"The [Department of Housing and Urban Development] has its initiatives and there's other philanthropic organizations that mean well, but we're not a socialist country," Merritt said. "It doesn't work."

The plan to go at it without federal assistance is ambitious, and it's not without risk, especially when you consider the scope: It's not just housing. They intend to provide food, clothing, as well as job-training and counseling, and hope to have self-sustaining hydroponic and aquaponic farming on site.

"There's a lot of people who say this isn't a self-sustaining model," Merritt told Task & Purpose. "We don't know. This is a theory... What I believe, and what the government is starting to understand is that these issues have to be solved on a community level, specifically on a local level."

On the whole, veteran homelessness is on the decline. A Nov. 1, 2018 report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development found that the number of homeless veterans in the United States has dropped by 5.4% since 2017, and by nearly half since 2010.

Though the veterans village model is more expansive than the "one individual at a time" approach the foundation has taken in the past, there's a limit on how many people can participate in the program at a time, as well as who is eligible.

"We're going after the veteran population, one: because it resonates with me, and two: these individuals have proved themselves mentally and physically capable of holding a job," Merritt said. "There's a screening process to become a veteran."

Nine Line Foundation volunteers help construct a tiny home for the foundation's veterans village initiative in Savannah, Georgia.Photo courtesy of Nine Line Foundation

To live in the veterans village, participants will need proof of their military service in the form of a DD-214, and those with a Dishonorable Discharge will have their cases reviewed by the foundation's board, but Merritt stressed that "so long as they're not a threat to the population, or committed some egregious crime, then they'd be considered," adding "there's good people who have made bad choices."

When it comes to selecting who will participate in the program, Merritt said the approach is akin to triage.

"If we've got a hundred applicants for 10 spots then, the question becomes: Do you have the markers of success?" he asked. "If there's individuals who are enthusiastic, who have some abilities to allow them to transition through this program faster, then we're going to help them first."

"If I focus my attention on 10 individuals who I can get off the street in twelve months, and transition them to a job that affords them the ability to pay for an apartment, excellent," Merritt continued. "Then I can go get another person."

Correction Feb. 3, 2019: An earlier version of this article stated that Nine Line Apparel made $24 million in sales since it was founded in 2012. The company made more than $70 million in sales since it was founded, and $24 million in 2018.

SEE ALSO: Steve Carell Is Making A Show About The Space Force Similar To 'The Office'

WATCH NEXT: Task & Purpose Goes To The NRA Annual Meeting

It's a photo for the ages: a Marine NCO, a Greek god in his dress blues, catches the eye of a lovely young woman as her boyfriend urges her on in distress. It's the photographic ancestor of the much-loved "distracted boyfriend" stock photo meme, made even sweeter by the fact that this is clearly a sailor about to lose his girl to a Devil Dog.

Well, this photo and the Marine in it, which hopscotched around Marine Corps Facebook and Instagram pages before skyrocketing to the front page of Reddit on Thursday, are very real.

The photo shows then-Staff Sgt. Louis A. Capozzoli — and he is absolutely not on his way to steal your girl.

Read More Show Less
(U.S. Attorney's Office in Maryland)

GREENBELT, Md. (Reuters) - A U.S. Coast Guard lieutenant accused of amassing a cache of weapons and plotting to attack Democratic politicians and journalists was ordered held for two weeks on Thursday while federal prosecutors consider charging him with more crimes.

Read More Show Less
An undated image of Hoda Muthana provided by her attorney, Hassan Shibly. (Associated Press)

Attorneys for the Constitutional Law Center for Muslims in America have filed a lawsuit against Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Attorney General William Barr and President Donald Trump asking the court to recognize the citizenship of an Alabama woman who left the U.S. to join ISIS and allow she and her young son to return to the United States.

Read More Show Less
U.S. soldiers surveil the area during a combined joint patrol in Manbij, Syria, November 1, 2018. Picture taken November 1, 2018. (U.S. Army/Zoe Garbarino/Handout via Reuters)

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States will leave "a small peacekeeping group" of 200 American troops in Syria for a period of time after a U.S. pullout, the White House said on Thursday, as President Donald Trump pulled back from a complete withdrawal.

Read More Show Less
Construction crews staged material needed for the Santa Teresa Border Wall Replacement project near the Santa Teresa Port of Entry. (U.S. Customs and Border Patrol/Mani Albrecht)

With a legal fight challenge mounting from state governments over the Trump administration's use of a national emergency to construct at the U.S.-Mexico border, the president has kicked his push for the barrier into high gear.

On Wednesday, President Trump tweeted a time-lapse video of wall construction in New Mexico; the next day, he proclaimed that "THE WALL IS UNDER CONSTRUCTION RIGHT NOW"

But there's a big problem: The footage, which was filmed more than five months ago on Sep. 18, 2018, isn't really new wall construction at all, and certainly not part of the ongoing construction of "the wall" that Trump has been haggling with Congress over.

Read More Show Less