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From hopeless to tiny home

Homeless veterans find help in a village of tiny homes

The 10 months Richard Butler spent in Vietnam were the scariest of his life. For solace, he turned to drugs.

“That was the only way I could see myself making it through. And if I didn’t make it through, I was planning to be too numb to realize it,” says Butler, 64, who served in the Marine Corps from 1971-1974.

Addicted, things got worse when he returned home. “I made a lot of bad life choices and I had a lot of friends who were in the streets doing nonproductive stuff,” he says.

Butler wound up robbing banks and spending “quite a bit of time” in prison. He also entered drug rehab three different times. Eventually, he found himself homeless.

However, Butler isn’t alone.

Most homeless veterans are loners, male and single and suffer from mental illness and/or alcohol and drug abuse. Thankfully, organizations such as Veterans Outreach of Wisconsin in Racine are creating solutions to end homelessness among veterans.

Veteran village

Jeff Gustin, co-founder of Veterans Outreach, is part of the solution.

VOW, which provides food, clothing, shelter and other basic needs, was getting numerous calls from veterans who exhausted their resources and felt they were out of options.

Then, about 18 months ago, Gustin came up with the idea to build the James A. Peterson Veteran Village. This new tiny-home community helps formerly homeless residents transition into permanent housing.

With private donations and help from volunteers, like students from Case High School of Racine, Wisc., VOW has built 15 tiny homes so far and all are occupied.

Unlike the fully-equipped tiny homes often featured on HGTV, the homes in Veteran Village are 128-square-feet bedrooms. Residents — veterans, not dishonorably discharged, who live in Wisconsin — go to the community center for toilets and showers, laundry and kitchen facilities.

“We didn’t want to put enough stuff in the homes where they could isolate themselves,” Gustin says. “We want them to socialize.”

Butler says the philosophy behind the design has been crucial.

“Most of us are loners,” the former Marine says. “We’d be around other people sometimes, but they were negative people. But this, being a close and closed-in community, has given us the opportunity to cohabitate with other people.

“Even though they have the same problems, we can help each other. When you are helping other people with the same problem, you are helping yourself. You can listen to your own advice. I never before had anyone want to listen to what I had to say. I think it’s great.”

Residents don’t pay rent or a fee to live in Veteran Village. To get in, however, potential residents must be referred from another veterans’ service office, have an urgent need for housing and participate in an interview with resident coordinator Shannon Goodman.

The veterans, who can stay up to two years depending on their needs, also are subject to drug and alcohol testing.

“They have to remain sober inside and outside of the community,” says Goodman.

Life lessons

Unlike prison or rehab treatment centers, Butler says VOW addresses real needs. Rehab centers “weren’t imparting any life skills or living skills,” he says. “I would get disenfranchised and disappointed with my life; and instead of doing something better and constructive, I just kept going off to the other side.”

In addition to housing and basic services, VOW offers music and art therapy, counseling, support groups and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. With help from United Way, which provides financial literacy classes, the organization also provides veterans’ benefits searches, resume writing, job searches and life coaching.

Butler appreciates the “whole gauntlet” of resources. “I have a financial counselor who is helping me manage my funds," he says. "There’s a veteran who comes in talks to us … concerning our PTSD.”

Never before has anyone addressed Butler’s PTSD, he says. “The drug use was a symptom of the problem we already have with the PTSD. We were trying to self-medicate and calm ourselves down.”

Yet when they put you out of drug programs, Butler says, you still have whatever mental problems you had before. What’s more, he notes, you still didn’t have anywhere to live.

“This is a calmer environment. You really do feel better about yourself,” Butler says. “They treat you like a human being and make you aware that your success is on your own merit and not something someone forces.”

Most surprising to Butler is some VOW volunteers aren’t veterans.

“They are community-oriented, concerned individuals,” Butler says. “I didn’t know they had people like this in the world. That’s what makes us veterans feel good. These are just normal, regular people. That’s where the blessing comes in.”

Butler, who is rebuilding his relationship with his son, plans to stay at VOW’s Veteran Village for the entire two-year period.

“I want to make sure I have it right before I leave,” Butler says. “Even though I just started, I know in my mind, in my heart, I will be ready to be a member of society. I’ll be able to cope with the situation. This type of living helps me to learn to live with and deal with other people and learn to care about them and their problems.”

Call 877-4AID-VET (877-424-3838) if you are a veteran and are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless or if you are a family member or friend of a veteran in need.

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