Wisconsin veteran shares journey from living homeless behind Walmart, to tiny home, to hope
By ADAM ROGAN | The (Racine, Wis.) Journal Times | Published: August 25, 2019
RACINE (Tribune News Service) — John Gruve was tired, cold and very much alone.
Last winter wasn’t the first time Gruve had been homeless, but it was one of the coldest. Since leaving an abusive home at 17, and leaving the Army as a young man in 1989, Gruve hasn’t had stable housing for more than a few years at a time.
Living underneath a tarp in the sparse-and-shrinking forested areas of Sturtevant and Mount Pleasant, Gruve had enjoyed the solitude and time to read books checked out from Racine Public Library. But now in his 50s, he realized his lifestyle wasn’t sustainable.
“For four years, I avoided everybody,” Gruve said, and he means everybody. “I only went anywhere at night. I didn’t talk to anybody. I avoided people. If anybody said, ‘Hi,’ I pretty much ran away. I’d rarely have interactions with anybody.”
He’s been running for 30 years. Not so much anymore.
Escaping an emotional ‘lockdown’
Gruve is a big guy with close-cropped hair befitting someone still on active duty. His quiet eyes sit behind thick glasses, and his voice usually registers just above a loud whisper.
When the Sturtevant native’s enlistment in the Army ended 30 years ago, he took other jobs that paid better. He, like many other vets, quickly came to miss the structure and routine of enlisted life. Looking back, he kind of regrets not re-enlisting.
“When we got out, it was like a vacuum. It was like floating in space. There was nobody or nothing,” he said last week, sitting in the community building at the James A. Peterson Veteran Village at at 1624 Yout St.
You can’t get veterans benefits without a valid address, and USPS doesn’t deliver to “the forest behind Walmart.”
“Until they go through it, people don’t realize how easy it is to fall off the face of the Earth,” said Fiona Murphy, the director of development for Veterans Outreach of Wisconsin, which owns and operates the village.
Despite not talking to anyone for days — or weeks — at a time, Gruve’s situation wasn’t entirely unique. The independence of civilian life often can be paralyzing when it immediately follows the rigidity of enlisted life.
In November 2015, TaskAndPurpose.com wrote that veterans often “go into lockdown mode and push everyone as far away as possible” upon discharge from the military. In that same article, TaskAndPurpose pointed out that VFW halls around the country are constantly filled with weathered stories of valor and heroism, with veterans remembering “back when” in a way that only veterans can relate to — and civilians struggle to imagine.
Gruve is finally back in the fold with other vets. On May 30, after four consecutive years without a home, he moved into the James A. Peterson Veteran Village — the grouping of 15 tiny homes where vets at risk of homelessness can live for free and can receive education and support, including financial literacy classes, an on-site food pantry and some much-needed camaraderie with peers.
Getting vets together is one of the tenets of the village. By putting 15 people who all have faced similar struggles in one spot, group healing occurs.
“We want to rebuild them out of their strengths, not through this temporary moment of vulnerability … veterans will help veterans,” Murphy said. “We’re a team … this is the closest a lot of these guys have had to family.”
Murphy continued, “These guys are so shut down with shame and trauma until they see someone else like them, another veteran.”
When he was homeless, especially living outside of shelters, Gruve said most of his life was waiting — waiting for soup kitchens to open, for restaurants to close so he could rummage through their garbage, waiting for the rain to stop, for the cold to pass, for kind strangers to donate blankets or dog food for Gruve’s best friend: Eva, a 6-year-old service dog who now lives in the tiny home with Gruve.
That kind of short-term thinking is typical for people (veterans or otherwise) who are homeless, according to Murphy. A homeless person’s primary (and sometimes only) concerns are acquiring food and shelter — nothing else matters if you haven’t fulfilled those basic needs.
Instead of foraging for food, Gruve now tends the village’s garden every morning. Murphy calls him a gardening “maestro” because his green thumb helps sprout tomatoes, eggplants, peas and gourds where there was just fallow soil one year ago.
“I grew up cooking from scratch and gardening. Those were good things to get back into,” Gruve said. “I didn’t miss the childhood. That was not so good. But I did miss some of the tasks.”
He’s also landed a job for the first time in four years — commercial cleaning at Racine Theatre Guild — which has helped him start building up some savings that could help him whenever he moves out of the tiny home. He also donates his time with Woof Gang Rescue, the volunteer-run dog rescue that helped feed Eva when she and Gruve were homeless.
“You don’t need to suffer alone,” Gruve said, reflecting on those cold years. “There’s a lot of people out here who will help you. Just let your need be known.”
In summer 2016, there wasn’t much of note at 1624 Yout St.
Less than 18 months and hundreds, if not thousands, of volunteer hours later, there were 15 128-square-foot homes available for veterans. All the homes had occupants by March 2018 and they haven’t been empty since.
Last October, Gruve thought to himself, “It’s time to transition back into having a normal life.”
That transition still took months. He connected with Racine Vocational Ministries, actually started talking to HOPES Center volunteers — who drive around the county almost every night looking for homeless people in need — and reconnected with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
That process involved a couple of periods when Gruve retreated back to the woods with only Eva as company, blowing off medical and veteran-related appointments as he decompressed from overstimulation.
“Being around people drains me,” Gruve said; he epitomizes what it means to be an introvert.
Gruve always had kept his trauma to himself. By avoiding other humans almost entirely between October 2015 and the beginning of 2019, there was no chance of having to talk about his past. His healing had to come from within — although he gladly sees a therapist now.
“I started out being very private for the first 30 years (of my life), because of the abuse and that. We were discouraged from talking to people, so I kept it all in,” said Gruve, the oldest of four siblings. “As I made some breakthroughs with healing from that, I got to the point of, ‘I don’t need to hide this. I don’t need to be ashamed of this. It wasn’t my fault.’
“I don’t want people to suffer silently, like I did for three decades.”
Bittersweetly, he already is looking forward to the day he moves out.
“On the one hand, I would stay here forever and this would be my retirement. I would absolutely love that,” he said, smiling at the thought. “But on the other hand, there’s some other veteran that’s out there, sleeping on the streets, sleeping in his car, and I need to move out and give him room, give him his chance to get on his feet.”
Right now, the next big project on the hands of Veterans Outreach of Wisconsin is building a new village on the north side of Milwaukee, triple the size of the one in Racine, with more than 40 homes planned.
The strategy that built Racine’s village is being applied in Milwaukee: Get community support to build the homes themselves while simultaneously working with the neighborhood and the municipality to give the second village the go-ahead.
With Mayor Tom Barrett giving his full support to the plan, along with other city leaders and elected officials, Milwaukee’s village could be open in the next year.
“Somebody helped build me a home, and I’m going to help build somebody else a home. I’m going to pass it forward,” Gruve said. “I want to help get these guys off the street.”