The plan to use a wing at Grace Lutheran Church for veterans housing is an interesting one. It’s well outside the typical project for Habitat for Humanity. But this fits well enough with the organization’s overarching goal of ensuring everyone has safe housing.
This also raises questions, though. We’re not sure Habitat really wants to wade into the issue of demographic-specific housing in a significant way. This looks more like an opportunistic solution, taking advantage of a rare combination of factors. And a one-off project is what this really should be.
When people think of Habitat for Humanity, they think of the program to build single-family housing in a way that requires the families involved to put in sweat equity. They think of the work Jimmy Carter has famously done with the organization during his long post-office life. That image is pretty hard to criticize in most ways. But when an organization ventures into housing that is aimed at specific demographic groups, the public’s sense of the effort can change.
What this work underscores is the very real need for more housing for at-risk veterans in this region. While Habitat might be the wrong group to address it at a large scale, the same cannot be said for the state.
Last November, a group of local veterans and former state Sen. David Zien urged the Legislature to approve a second Wisconsin Veterans Home in northwestern Wisconsin. The home in Chippewa Falls no longer keeps up with demand, especially when there is only one such facility in this region. The waiting list statewide tallied more than 400 people at the time.
Zien pointed to the sale of land in Chippewa Falls from a property that was earmarked, should any portion of it be sold, for corrections, social services or veterans affairs. He and the veterans said the money from that sale should go to a second veterans home, calling it a “golden opportunity.”
The fact Habitat for Humanity is stepping into a gap that rightfully should be occupied by Wisconsin’s fulfillment of its obligations should be deeply embarrassing to the state. Nonprofit groups have their place, but they’re not government. They have never been intended to supplant the government’s role. Yet, that’s precisely what seems to be happening here.
It’s not a case of debating whether the project proposed by Habitat is worthy. There can be little doubt of that. The issue is that it is simply unacceptable for Wisconsin to have a waiting list for housing veterans that stretches several hundred names, to have the funding available to address a portion of that need, and to sit on its hands long enough that a group like Habitat feels the need to act.
Such inaction makes little sense. Problems rarely are solved with waiting, and the idea that the work will somehow be easier or less of a financial burden in the future is a fantasy.
We’ve already seen how well that approach works right here in Eau Claire with the funding for UW-Eau Claire’s new science building. Legislators approved half of the funding several years ago, but have thus far failed to follow through with the promised second half. The result? A much bigger price tag than if the state’s elected officials had made a single allocation.
We won’t know the fate of Habitat’s proposal for a while. It was discussed last week, but the vote on a city grant for the project isn’t on the schedule for almost a month. It’s tentatively set for Valentine’s Day, a few weeks before the March deadline for the city to tell the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development how it plans to spend the money.
There’s a certain irony to that date. The imagery of a vote in favor of those who have well earned the support of their nation on a date linked to public affection is difficult to ignore. Yet the state has thus far failed to show veterans that same devotion, instead substituting a waiting list for action.
It’s time for the state to show its veterans some love and move forward with a second veterans home in northwestern Wisconsin. The site, money and opportunity already exist. All that remains is action.
— From the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram