For Jim, a 73-year-old veteran of the U.S. Navy, having a safe place to call home is, in his words, “helping me learn to help myself.
“Wisconsin Veterans Village gave me the first real home I’ve had in years,” said Jim, who had bounced between veterans’ homes and homeless shelters. He felt lucky that unlike some veterans, he was not hungry and sleeping in a car.
Jim is just one of 33 veterans living and receiving services at Wisconsin Veterans Village in Appleton, a first-of-its-kind facility that provides affordable housing, support and community.
“The need is so acute,” says its executive consultant Tom Wiltzius, who noted Outagamie, Brown, Waupaca, Winnebago and Calumet counties are home to about 44,000 veterans. “We average 10 percent of the adult population in our region are veterans. That’s unusually high.
“There isn’t (a similar facility) for all ages, for all needs,” says Wiltzius, a U.S. Army veteran of the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars. “So, we’ve designed and carefully researched this.”
Seven years ago, Wiltzius’ mother — a World War II veteran in her 90s — was on a waiting list at a long-term care facility, but she was unable to get in. He called a friend on the Outagamie County Board for solutions and then along with some other local leaders, he began to study the challenges facing veterans.
“The more we delved into it, we discovered one of the challenges … is that there is an acute shortage of affordable housing in Northeast Wisconsin,” Wiltzius says. “Almost every veterans’ issue can be addressed in a positive vein (with) access to affordable housing.”
Amid his research, Wiltzius found specialized housing facilities — ones that catered to veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, but none with a broad mission and reach. “The VA is focused on particular niche areas,” he says. “(This is) a new paradigm.”
The Wisconsin Veterans Village occupies a portion of the Glen Park Apartments, a 48-unit complex located near Fox Valley Technical College. The facility is owned by the Outagamie County Housing Authority, and as tenants leave, veterans fill those vacancies.
Wiltzius and the Wisconsin Veterans Village board have been raising funds to support the village and renovate the 30-year-old apartments and community center.
The Phase 1 fundraising campaign brought in $3 million. “My goal for Phase 1 was that we could do it in two years,” he says. “We were fortunate to have completed this despite the pandemic.”
For Phase 2, 39 additional apartments will be built and an executive director may be hired, Wiltzius says. The Boldt Co. has done preliminary planning for the addition.
As part of Phase 3, Wisconsin Veterans Village plans to erect an end-of-life facility. Wiltzius says ThedaCare has committed to supporting that phase, both in-kind and financially.
The planning and execution of the Wisconsin Veterans Village has not gone unnoticed. Wiltzius says the group has fielded calls from other areas and communities throughout the United States wanting to replicate its example.
“People find out what we’re doing and they want to know how we’re doing it,” he says. “These things (housing, support, community) are critically important. One of the ways veterans can be best served is simply to be around other veterans.”
And for Jim, that’s a lifeline. “It gives people like me hope that we still have an opportunity to win.”