Racine nonprofit builds tiny houses for local veterans

CARA SPOTO, The Journal Times

To those unfamiliar with the “tiny house” movement, the small structure being constructed in a barn in rural Racine County might look more like a kid’s clubhouse than an actual home in the making.

Take a look at the building through the eyes of Jeff Gustin, however, and it’s easy to see the 128-square-foot house as the perfect solution to eliminating veteran homelessness in Racine.

A demonstration model, the home is being built by volunteers of Veterans Outreach of Wisconsin, The Journal Times reported.

Once completed it will be used to help the nonprofit raise enough funds to create a total of 15 tiny houses — homes that will soon become a part of a “veterans village” for unhoused vets in the city of Racine.

Giving a quick tour of the unfinished model last week, Gustin, the executive director of Veterans Outreach, explained what each home will feature.

“Up here you will have a lofted bed, and beneath it a couch. There will be a desk here in the corner with an outlet. You can put a microwave here and little refrigerator, and over there would be the composting toilet,” he explained.

The tiny houses will not have running water, but a community building in the center of the village would have bathrooms with shower facilities and flush toilets. The center also is where homeless vets could go for free meals, camaraderie, drug and alcohol addiction counseling and veterans’ services.

The nonprofit has yet to officially secure a site for the village, but it is looking at a property near Uptown.


Curbing homelessness

Dedicated to curbing veteran homelessness, Veterans Outreach was founded in December 2013. Today, it runs a food pantry that serves 30 to 40 veterans a week. And in 2015, the furniture warehouse it maintains helped furnish the homes of 225 veterans.

Gustin said he other members of the nonprofit started thinking about creating a village of tiny houses for homeless vets last year, after hearing about similar developments for the homeless in cities such as Madison and Seattle.

“For some people, it’s hard to envision living in a space this small. They might wonder how they could fit all their clothes inside. These are people recovering from homelessness. They are going to be coming in here with a duffel bag,” said Gustin, whose son is a combat veteran.

In order to live in the village, a veteran could not have a dishonorable discharge, nor any sex-crime convictions on his or her record. They also cannot be homeless because they choose to be homeless, Gustin said.

The veterans would enroll in a two-year program, after which they would secure their own permanent housing.

“We want to ensure they have broken the cycle,” Gustin said. “The goal is to get them stabilized.”


A village for vets

To make the village a reality, Gustin estimates Veterans Outreach will need to raise about $125,000. That money would include the cost to construct all 15 houses, as well as money needed for the community building and site acquisition.

The plan would be to build the homes in three phases, with five homes being built during each phase. The hope would be that much of the labor and materials would be donated. The nonprofit has already received donations from Van’s Electric and Bliffert Lumber, and Gustin recently learned that Racine Habitat for Humanity might be constructing one of the houses this May.

Gustin said his hope to have at least the first phase completed before the snow flies this fall.

“I don’t want to find out in November that there is a veteran sleeping on the streets and it’s below freezing,” he said.


City hall help

Mayor John Dickert, who has been helping the nonprofit with its efforts, said he sees the project as being something that could help the city reach its goal of having zero homeless veterans.

“We are very, very close (to reaching that goal). The problem is we are finding we have a lot of transitional veterans and they are not being assessed because they are moving around,” Dickert said.

By providing transitional housing to the homeless veterans that end up in Racine, Veterans Outreach can help those veterans get the assessments they need, he said.

“The credit goes to these guys who are working this project,” Dickert said. “Three years ago, President Barack Obama asked us to end homelessness among veterans, and they have been working non-stop to do that.”


An AP member exchange feature.