ORTING, Wash. - Veterans recovering from homelessness are finding their new start in Pierce County. Progress is being made at Orting Veterans Village, located on five acres of land at the Washington Soldiers Home. The tiny home village opened in May 2021, and military members said the new program is changing their lives.
"Feeling productive again. Feeling like I belong," said Jimmy "Happy" Gilmore, a U.S. Army veteran.
For the first time in a long time, Gilmore said he felt right at home.
"I can’t tell you the last time I had my own place. I don’t think in my whole life I’ve ever had my own place," said Gilmore. "I’m real appreciative of that. I got my own bed, I got my own TV now."
The Army vet said he was homeless—moving from shelter to shelter, battling years of addiction to alcohol.
"There’s a hopelessness that I can’t explain. It’s despair in every area of your life. And most of the time I prayed for death," said Gilmore. "I became desperate. I had to get desperate in order for me to get clean and sober."
Faith is what Gilmore said kept him alive, and ultimately leading him to the Orting Veterans Village. He is one of 25 veterans currently living at the village. Gilmore said he credits this community in helping him stay sober for the last eight months.
"Just cleaning up the wreckage. And not just the wreckage in my life, but the wreckage I put in other people’s lives, like my family. I got brothers that actually talk to me now. I got a niece and nephew, a few nieces and nephews that they’re proud of me. And they actually want to know how I’m doing," said Gilmore.
Gilmore’s personal growth is the kind of progress the Orting Veterans Village was designed for. It opened in the spring, exclusive to those who served the country, but struggled with life after duty. The program helps them reclaim their lives through resources—from employment and education, to mental health and medical needs.
"Hope. You see the smiles, the peace. And it’s just good to watch people improve. I mean, I got a lot of guys now that’s working on medical conditions that they didn’t have time to take care of because they wasn’t stable. Guys setting goals, making plans. I mean, these are little small steps, but it’s change," said Marcus Taylor, resident advocate of the village and U.S. Navy veteran.
Change is what Army veteran John "PJ" Aquino said he has been longing for. He said he was experiencing homelessness off and on for the past 37 years.
"It gives me a chance to rediscover what it is to actually live a life that’s worth living," said Aquino. "I think the biggest thing that has hit me lately is being appreciative. And understanding that the people that put this together didn’t have to."
Aquino, an ordained minister and self-proclaimed hippie, said he volunteers as the village Chaplin.
"The Lord has given me so many things to be happy about. To be enjoying, to understand, to appreciate," said Aquino. "This opportunity here, I think, is God given."
The village is a service to those that served, and a welcome home they deserve. A place for veterans like Gilmore to call their own. The Army vet said he works with a case manager at the village. He is receiving help restoring his credit, preparing to enroll in trade school and successfully completed two job interviews.
"I hope it inspires people because that’s what I want to do. I want to inspire people to let them know there’s hope," said Gilmore.
There are 35 homes total at the Orting Veterans Village. The staff is accepting recommendations, doing outreach and working with area programs to find the right veterans to offer the services. Once the new residents pass a background check and drug test, they are enrolled in the program for one year. After that, they are welcome to stay as long as they need to help them become more self-sufficient.
Quixote Communities is leading this project in housing homeless veterans. The group created its first village in Olympia, and a third site is under construction in Shelton. Washington State Department of Veteran Affairs is also one of many partners to make this village happen.
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