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A national nonprofit plans Milwaukee veteran village for veterans at-risk of homelessness

Two tiny homes sit outside on green grass and brown, fallen leaves. It is raining, which can be seen from the water on the sidewalks leading to each of the houses.
Nadya Kelly
Two tiny homes in the Racine veteran village.

A national nonprofit called The Veterans Community Project plans to build a village of tiny homes in Milwaukee for the city’s at-risk and homeless veterans.

The village would include 40 tiny homes on the Northwest side of the city to serve as free transitional housing for veterans while they look for permanent residences.

To learn more about the tiny home village concept, WUWM visited a similar development, the James A. Peterson Veteran Village in Racine.

Ken Carter has been living at the Racine veteran village for three months. He previously served in the military as a Marine, and though he retired more than 10 years ago, he came to the village because the apartment building he was living in was sold.

His new house in the Racine village has an American flag painted on the side. Carter says that although this house is small, it allows him to sleep comfortably.

Carter's new house is only about 128-square-feet, but it still manages to hold a bed, a microwave, a mini fridge, a flat-screen TV, and a heater. Hats, clothing, and a bag filled with herbal tea are hung around the house, and one wall is decorated with a painting Carter made in art classes here.

Two men pose for a picture with their arms wrapped around each other's shoulders.
Nadya Kelly
Ken Carter (right) poses for a picture with his friend Jim (left) in one of the community rooms at the Racine village.

Carter’s home is one of 15 tiny homes in this Veterans Outreach of Wisconsin village. There is also a community building, with shared bathrooms, a kitchen, and two community rooms. The residents participate in meetings with a case manager, peer support groups, and in outings to places like the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.

All veterans, regardless of if they live in the village are not, can access the resources it provides. Peer support specialist Chelsea Lemmons says the main goal is to aid veterans in transitioning to civilian life.

"A lot of veterans come in here, and they're at rock bottom," Lemmons says. "Or they just got lost for a while and they're trying to have support."

Now, a similar tiny home village is in the works in Milwaukee. Veterans Outreach originally planned to lead that project. But now, it’s in the hands of a different organization, the Veterans Community Project (VCP). Bill Malzewski is Capital Campaign Chair with VCP.

"We knew we had a problem here in Milwaukee that a lot of our veterans were falling through the gaps of services that our government provides," Malzewski says. "We really just needed to figure out how we fulfill those gaps and get our veterans that do fall through those gaps back on their feet, and that's really the foundation of Veterans Community Project."

Similar to the Racine veteran village, VCP’s soon-to-be-built Milwaukee community will focus on helping veterans with housing and on-site case management. The development is planned for Menomonee River Hills and Wyrick Park on the far northwest side of the city.

VCP Development Manager Janice Bell says the small, furnished houses might remind veterans of their time in the military.

"You'll feel a little bit of that barracks lifestyle in the design of these homes," Bell says. "When you walk into that home that you get to call your own, it is literally all brand new stuff. It is a home with dignity. 

According to a 2022 report by the UW-Milwaukee Center for Economic Development, veterans are nearly 50% more likely to become homeless, with the risk higher for low-income and minority veterans. In urban Wisconsin, roughly 20% of veteran households are severely rent burdened, putting them more at risk of utility cutoffs, evictions and homelessness.

Co-founder of VCP Brandonn Mixon says this project is not just about providing temporary housing.

"We specifically focus on what made you homeless," Mixon says. "Is it a money management issue? Is it a mental health issue? Is it a network of support issue? We can find focusing on those underlying issues helps them with that transition."

The Veterans Community Project has already built 5 veteran villages in cities across the United States, including Kansas City, Sioux Falls, and St. Louis. They say they have an 85% success rate in helping veterans find permanent housing.

The Veterans Community Project hopes to begin construction next spring in 2024, but it will depend on fundraising. They’re seeking funding from local businesses and philanthropists to offer the temporary housing to veterans for free.

Nadya is WUWM's sixth Eric Von fellow.
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