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Guests in their own homes

The Guest House on Friday opened its Prairie Apartments at 1218 W. Highland Ave., Milwaukee. Several residents of the shelter helped build and work on the project.  Photo by Corey Hengen

The Guest House on Friday opened its Prairie Apartments at 1218 W. Highland Ave., Milwaukee. Several residents of the shelter helped build and work on the project. Photo by Corey Hengen

Sean Ryan
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David Lee was homeless last year, but the construction training he received while working on The Guest House project in Milwaukee helped him secure an apartment and a job as a masonry laborer.

But Lee hasn’t worked since November because the economic downturn killed project opportunities for Hopwood Masonry Inc., Milwaukee, which trained Lee as a subcontractor for VJS Construction Services Inc., Pewaukee, on The Guest House project.

“It’s a long haul,” Lee said. “You’ve got to stay with it for a long time, because it’s going to pay off, regardless. But sometimes you are going to have months and months without work.”

The Guest House built a homeless shelter called Prairie Apartments at 1218 W. Highland Ave. in Milwaukee. The Guest House and Chicago developer Heartland Housing Inc. required contractors to train and hire The Guest House residents when building the 24-unit building that opened Friday.

Of the 50 residents of The Guest House that attended job-training sessions, 17 completed the training. Six of those residents got jobs on the project and 11 found work on other projects, said Antonio Riley, executive director of the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority, which provided tax credits to the project.

Mark Hilton is back on his feet after working as a security guard for VJS Construction Services Inc., Pewaukee, on The Guest House’s Prairie Apartments project in Milwaukee.  Photo by Corey Hengen

Mark Hilton is back on his feet after working as a security guard for VJS Construction Services Inc., Pewaukee, on The Guest House’s Prairie Apartments project in Milwaukee. Photo by Corey Hengen

Mark Hilton, who spent eight months in The Guest House after kicking a drug-abuse problem, said he worked as a security guard on the project every day – even Christmas – between September and February. Hilton said he also has experience doing remodeling and painting work, but said he isn’t pursuing a career in construction. He said he’s ready to explore new opportunities.

“I’m going to work at the (Milwaukee County) Zoo,” Hilton said. “Landscaping, shovel rhino guano, whatever it takes.”

The six workers on The Guest House project did security patrols, site cleaning, and drywall and electrical work, said Heartland Housing project manager Kristine Berg. She said those that opted against staying in the construction trades still received job training that prepared them for other jobs.

VJS partner Chris Suave said it took some convincing to get subcontractors to hire new trainees for The Guest House project at a time when some of their longtime employees didn’t have work. He said VJS is trying to recruit some of the trainees from The Guest House project to work on the construction project VJS is tackling for the Bishop’s Creek Community Development Corp. in Milwaukee.

“There are some transportation issues,” Suave said, “but we’re hopeful.”

Lee said he’s staying in touch with Hopwood and is ready to work whenever he gets the call. In the meantime, he’s going to school this fall to get training as a project manager, and he is paying his rent with money he saved. He said The Guest House project opened doors for him, and he is holding on until projects start to materialize.

“It opened up a lot of experiences that I’ve been wanting to take upon my life,” he said. “It helped me get there.”

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