Fallbrook CA— Two pressing issues converged on Mark Pilcher, one involving California’s dire housing situation, the other concerning those among the worst affected citizens — homeless and struggling veterans.
He began masterminding a plan to address one issue to serve the other, and arrived at the Mark Pilcher, now well underway with its first two cottages under construction in San Marcos.
“We understand that a lot of veterans are homeless for a reason,” Pilcher said. “They have experienced trauma, or a series of traumas. They are suffering from Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and/or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or have other issues related to their military service. Focusing on the needs of homeless veterans seemed like a good place to start to address the broader issues of housing affordability and homelessness,” he added.
Pilcher describes the Warrior Village Project as “a collaboration of building industry associations, nonprofits serving veterans, high schools and colleges, business and private donors, and community volunteers working together to provide affordable, permanent housing for homeless veterans while training the next generation of home builders.”
This group includes San Marcos High, Palomar College, the Building Industry Association of San Diego County, the California Homebuilding Foundation, Associated General Contractors, San Diego County Planning and Development Services, and a growing list of sponsors that include The Grainger Foundation, Reliable Wholesale Lumber, Simpson Strong-Tie, Boral Steel, The Home Depot Foundation, Weyerhauser, Sherwin Williams, and a host of others.
Both the general housing situation and homeless veterans’ plight are becoming more dire in California. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 500,000 construction jobs are unfilled in the U.S., a large portion of those in California. Affordable housing has become nearly impossible to find in San Diego County, with a median home price exceeding $699,000, according to Zillow. In 2019, an estimated 400,000 veterans spent at least a month in homelessness, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development — including more than 25,000 in California.
The Warrior Village Project is addressing both problems head-on. Under the program, a homeless veteran, or one transitioning from a group home, will be provided one of the 400-square-foot cottages. It was largely constructed by students from San Marcos High prior to the Coronavirus pandemic under the watchful eyes of instructor Chris Geldert, and building trades professionals volunteering from throughout San Diego County.
The first cottage is scheduled to be installed in mid-summer, behind a transitional housing residence operated by Wounded Warrior Homes, which provides housing and social services to veterans with TBI and/or PTSD. Wounded Warrior Homes provides transitional housing for 13 veterans at a time, and has a waiting list of veterans needing housing. The cottage will enable Wounded Warrior Homes to provide housing for more veterans.
“Wounded Warrior Homes was very positive from the beginning,” Pilcher said. “They said, ‘Let’s talk about this and make it work.’ They have three (group) homes in the San Diego County area, where they provide transitional housing to veterans with PTSD or traumatic brain injuries. We will install the cottage as an ADU (Accessory Dwelling Unit, or ‘Granny Flat’) to their home in the unincorporated area of Vista. A veteran will transition out of that group environment to our accessory dwelling unit. They will live alone in their own space, with their own kitchen, and will learn how to live with more independence. The next step would be to move back into the general community.”
The fact that homeless vets, or those transitioning from group homes, will be occupying the cottages has impacted everyone involved with the project — perhaps none more so than the San Marcos High School students who are building them.
“I love the community outreach aspect, that we’re helping veterans,” said senior Angeline Witt, a student project manager who recently was accepted into the construction management program at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. “That makes me even more proud to be working on this. My grandfather was a Rear Admiral in the Navy; missile projects he oversaw are still used on submarines today. He’s super appreciative that I’m doing this project.”
Her instructor, Chris Geldert, put aside a career as a finish carpenter and cabinetmaker to take over the wood shop program at San Marcos High. Now, a decade later, he finds himself in a project that makes full use of his teaching skills, not only because of the learning curve for his students, but because of the future residents — and the added emphasis on well-built cottages that it requires.
“I treat the kids as students, but also as if they were professional builders. I hold them highly accountable for everything they do,” Geldert said. “Veterans will be living in these homes. This industry is highly regulated; you have to meet standards and codes, follow safe work practices. We’ve had some setbacks, and rather than get frustrated, the students know we have to keep moving along. They’ve carried themselves really well.”
Project volunteer Rick Hoehn, who spent 43 years as a plumber in Southern California before retiring in 2019, is equally impressed with the outreach the Warrior Village Project is making to veterans.
“I’m looking forward to being involved, giving the students instruction on plumbing and safety, and sharing my love of plumbing with them while we get these homes built for the veterans,” he said. “What I really like is that they’re building these homes for keeps, and they’ll get to see them with a great feeling of accomplishment, because they’ve just built homes for veterans who need them.”
Building Industry Association Senior Policy Advisor Michael McSweeney has worked with Geldert and Pilcher to install the project at San Marcos High, as part of the Building Industry Technology Academy (BITA), a curriculum now used by wood shop programs in 32 high schools statewide. He shares Pilcher’s objective to build more veterans’ housing through BITA and the Warrior Village Project, while being as impressed as the students about the service aspect.
“Everybody that finds out about this project wants to be part of it,” McSweeney said. “Our members are donating money and materials. We had a developer go out on Black Friday and spend $1,000 on battery-operated tools for the kids to use. Everyone realizes that not only is this a not-for-profit venture, but that eventually, a couple of veterans are going to be living in these homes. It gives everyone an additional sense of purpose in their work.”
The Warrior Village Project is headquartered in Fallbrook, CA. For more information, to receive the monthly newsletter, or to inquire about donating, becoming a sponsor or partner, or a volunteer, visit the website at https://warriorvillageproject.com/.