Sean Langley is a veteran. Langley served nine and a half years active duty in the Army. He served three tours in Iraq, one in Djibouti. "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.
Upon arrival to the states, he found himself without a roof over his head. He did choose to couchsurf, but that was not a permanent solution. Today his mat that sits on the top shelf of his closet, a poignant reminder of the days he spent on the streets. After Thanksgiving, he began residing in James A. Peterson Veterans Village in Racine. The complex of 15 tiny homes and a community center with showers, laundry facilities, kitchen, food pantry and recreation areas that opened last month.
Jeff Gustin was a bar manager in Racine who learned of a few veterans who needed furniture to start their civilian life. Gustin started to collect used chairs, tables and sofas and delivering them to veterans. Gustin soon had friends joining in on collecting pieces of furniture and after awhile, they filed a warehouse. The group started to be able to deliver furniture to the homes of about 20 veterans each month. Not long after, Veterans Outreach of Wisconsin was formed. Gustin, has a personal connection to veterans reacclimating to civilian life. His son is an Afghan War veteran. After he got back, he quickly realized that there was a need for housing. The idea to open a place for homeless veterans took root. "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."
Peterson Veterans Village has 15 homes, all for veterans. Each veteran gets his or her own abode with furnishings, television, a bed, kitchen appliances, and storage space. The center has a community center to engage conversation and friendship among the residents. The center additionally offers Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, counseling, art and music therapy, and a food pantry.
Gustin pitched the idea of a veterans village of tiny homes to Mayor Dickert in February 2016. Dickert got on board right away and the idea picked up momentum after Gustin found a 2½ acre property and vacant building that had become newly available. 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. "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.
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. Finally, a few days after Thanksgiving, on November 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 Veteran ts Day, four tiny homes had occupants, including a female Vietnam veteran and Langley. On Gustin's desk there’s a stack of applications from veterans, interested in becoming a tenant.
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. As he looked around his surroundings, vastly different from expected, he feels relief.