California has one of the highest veteran populations in America. On any given night, more than 15,000 of those veterans are homeless. The Golden State is proudly working on some of the nation’s most innovative programs to benefit veterans. One in particular is a unique program known as Habitat for Heroes, where volunteers, many of them veterans themselves, are building entire subdivisions of homes for their military brothers and sisters. Dozens of well-deserving veterans in Southern California have applied for assistance from Habitat for Humanity and Habitat for Heroes.
“This is a partnership with the California Department of Veteran Affairs (CalVet), and it doesn’t just mean we’ll be able to put veterans and their families in homes – it means we will be able to create neighborhoods with veteran-enriched programs to help everyone who has served our country,” says Kathy Michalak. As executive director of Habitat for Humanity Riverside, Kathy says the project takes Habitat to a whole new level. “In the past 25 years, the number of homes built for families across the Inland Empire has been far more than any other location in the state,” she says.
One of the veterans working to make Habitat for Heroes a success is Gunnery Sergeant Lee Crisp. GySgt Crisp has spent a lifetime giving back to his country. A marine since the age of 17, he has been through combat in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now serving in a different way – as the outreach officer for Habitat for Humanity. “‘Veteran enriched’ means offering everything from PTSD counseling to a community vegetable garden in the neighborhoods we are building, and it’s easy to connect because we speak the same language when it comes to veteran issues,” GySgt Crisp says.
He points to the fact that 1.5 million veterans nationwide continue to be at risk of homelessness, while 76 percent experience dependency or mental health issues and 37 percent need help finding housing. “Since this outreach initiative was established, more than 4,000 veterans have volunteered, and I am proud to be among them,” he says.
Much of the progress toward helping veterans in California would come to a halt if not for people like John Wartinger. He’s the build coordinator for Habitat and admits many veterans don’t believe it’s all real! “They typically question whether or not there are strings attached to obtaining a home through our organization,” he says.
One construction project in Jurupa Valley involves a veteran-enriched neighborhood with 26 homes and a park-like common area, where each home will be Energy Star Certified and ADA accessible. There is “sweat equity” required, meaning veterans and their families attend no-cost workshops on everything from finances to healthcare and PTSD to help transition and avoid homelessness.
Habitat for Humanity Riverside also runs what they call a “ReStore,” which offers new and gently-use items for sale to the public such as furniture, lamps, shoes, and clothing. Often large retailers donate truckloads of discontinued merchandise, knowing veterans or low-income families may be on the receiving end. This also means for each brick, piece of rebar, and coat of paint, chances are it’s material that’s been donated by a generous retailer looking to make a difference in the lives of others.
Mary Parks is creator and host of the weekly PBS television series American Spirit with Mary Parks. She is also an award-winning journalist.