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Village of tiny homes creates a community for homeless Wisconsin veterans

By MEG JONES | Milwaukee Journal Sentinel | Published: December 8, 2017

RACINE, Wis. (Tribune News Service) — Sean Langley points to a rolled-up mat on top of the closet in his new home, a reminder of his life on the streets.

Langley learned from other homeless people never to sleep directly on the ground or a bench, to always place your sleeping bag on a mat to prevent body heat from fatally draining away. Glancing up at the mat he no longer needs, he reveals matter-of-factly how easy it is to freeze to death sleeping outside.

Langley no longer couch surfs or sleeps without a roof over his head. Right after Thanksgiving, he moved into the James A. Peterson Veterans Village in Racine, a complex of 15 tiny homes and a community center with showers, laundry facilities, kitchen, food pantry and recreation areas that opened last month.

During 9½ years active duty in the Army, he served three tours in Iraq and one in Djibouti and worked as a forward observer, a skill that doesn't easily translate into employment.

"In the Army, I'm a valuable asset, but in the civilian world I might as well have no job experience," the 33-year-old Langley said. "A lot of people tell me 'thank you for your service' but it didn't translate into a job."

An estimated 1 in 10 homeless people is a military veteran; roughly 40,000 veterans are homeless, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. An additional 1.4 million veterans are considered at risk of homelessness because of poverty, a lack of support networks and poor living conditions in substandard housing.

Jeff Gustin was a bar manager in Racine who learned of a few veterans who needed furniture, so he began collecting used chairs, tables and sofas and delivering them. Soon, he and others had collected so many furnishings that Gustin rented a warehouse and was delivering furniture to the homes of about 20 veterans each month. Not long after, Veterans Outreach of Wisconsin was formed.

Gustin, whose son is an Afghan War veteran, realized there was a need for housing. The idea to open a place for homeless veterans took root.

'We owe them'

"I couldn't imagine my son being homeless especially after what he did for me and for our country. If I can't imagine my son being homeless, I can't imagine someone else's son being homeless," said Gustin, perched on a stool next to the large kitchen in the S.C. Johnson Community Center adjacent to the tiny homes.

"Most vets go on to great things after their service but a small fraction fall on hard times and we owe them for their service."

With the 15 tiny homes at the Peterson Veterans Village, each veteran gets his or her own abode with a comfy couch, television, bed, microwave, refrigerator and storage space. To prevent residents from becoming hermits, the community center is designed to pull people out of their shells to interact with other veterans over meals.

The center offers Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, counseling, art and music therapy, and a food pantry.

Racine has a food pantry and a homeless shelter but homeless veterans rarely went there because they're proud and don't want to take food meant for others, former Racine Mayor John Dickert said. Many homeless shelters force people to leave early in the morning and don't reopen until the evenings, which means folks must find a warm place to spend the day.

"The problem with the vets is they don't use homeless shelters. They stay at people's houses or garages or in their car or under a bridge," Dickert said.

Gustin pitched the idea of a veterans village of tiny homes to Dickert in February 2016. One of the problems was there were no city ordinances that would allow for such a facility. Dickert got on board right away and the idea picked up momentum after Gustin found a 2½ acre property and vacant building that had been a Teamsters hall, half a block from a city bus line.

The property and building were purchased for $104,000 and extensive renovations done by volunteers and contractors, many donating equipment and materials. In July 2016, a three-day workshop was held in Racine with Zack Giffin, co-host of the television program "Tiny Home Nation," helping build some of the abodes.

The site needed to be rezoned, so city officials wrote a zoning ordinance specifically tailored to the unique facility. Neighbors were asked if there were any objections to a homeless veterans village; none objected. The city also worked with Veterans Outreach of Wisconsin on the design of the homes, including plumbing and lighting to streamline inspections, said Dickert, who expected the project to take 1½ to two years. It was finished in less than a year.

Next spring, plans are to build horseshoe pits and plant a vegetable garden. The tiny homes are situated in sort of a circle with benches and a flagpole in the middle.

"What Jeff (Gustin) and his team have designed — it's built like a camp, even with a fire pit in the middle where they can hang out like a platoon. They're with buddies, they're with comrades in arms," said Dickert, whose father and brother served in the Marines.

A national model

Racine's village of tiny homes for homeless veterans could be a model for other cities, added Dickert, who was Racine mayor from 2009 until earlier this year. He brought Gustin to the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Miami this year to be part of a panel on veterans housing.

"I had mayors coming up to me saying, 'I've got to have this,' " Dickert said.

Dickert also suggested hiring veterans to build tiny homes in Racine to ship to other communities for homeless veterans housing, but that's simply an idea at this stage.

Gustin said the veterans village receives no federal government money and less than 5% of its projected annual $250,000 operating budget comes from the state Department of Veterans Affairs. The majority of its funding is through fundraisers like concerts, bowling tournaments, dinners and community groups that raise money.

Peterson, an Army veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder for whom the facility is named, spent many hours volunteering with Veterans Outreach of Wisconsin and attended a corn roast fundraiser for the group the day before Father's Day 2015. That night he was a passenger in a car that was struck broadside by a drunken driver in downtown Racine. Peterson and another man were killed.

"James was the kind of person you could call and say, 'Hey, I've got a house full of furniture' and he'd be there in five minutes," Gustin said.

Megan Peterson said her husband, who joined the military in 2006 and worked as a chemical specialist, often dropped their children off at school and then spent the rest of the day helping veterans until it was time to pick up his kids.

"He would be extremely proud he was able to (make) a difference for his fellow veterans in need," Megan Peterson said.

On Nov. 30, eight of the tiny homes had been inspected with the other seven still undergoing work and waiting for inspection. Within two weeks of the facility opening shortly before Veterans Day, four tiny homes had occupants, including a female Vietnam veteran and Langley. On Gustin's desk was a stack of applications for others seeking to live there for however long it takes them to get back on their feet.

On a recent day, Langley was continuing to get settled into his home. It didn't take him long to unpack the few possessions he had in a knapsack.

Langley admits he was overconfident in his ability to return to civilian life after multiple deployments. With a bad credit score and difficulty finding anything more than low-paying part-time retail work, he soon found himself homeless, spending $35 of his meager finances for a monthly gym membership so he'd have a place to clean up and wash his clothes.

As Langley watched leaves fall from trees this fall and felt temperatures drop, he increasingly worried about his fate. Through a Wisconsin National Guard recruiter, Langley learned of the James A. Peterson Veterans Village in Racine, applied and was accepted.

Now he's in a much better place — both physically and mentally.

"I went from thinking I hope I don't die in the cold to now I feel pretty confident," Langley said.

©2017 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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