JANESVILLE, Wis. — The first thing Don Gross will tell you is how thankful he is to have a roof over his head.
"I remember when I first got here," he said. "My fear and anxiety about being homeless went away. I realized I could focus on getting back on my feet."
Gross is one of about 40 veterans in a transitional housing program called Housing 4 Our Vets, located south of Janesville. In 2011, the nonprofit Rock Valley Community Programs opened the housing, which is funded by the Veterans Administration and community donations.
The goal of the program is for homeless veterans to transition into their own housing. Men range in age from early 20s to 80. Many served during the Vietnam era. More veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are entering the program, which can house a maximum of 48.
"We have guys with all kinds of challenges," Gross said. "They are able to live here for up to two years because our challenges take time to fix."
Gross is a Navy veteran who served as an electrician in the nuclear power program. After getting out of the service, he worked 20 years in industrial maintenance.
He also struggled with substance abuse.
Eventually, he lost his job, vehicle, home and marriage.
"When I got here, my first priority was going through a treatment program at the Veterans Administration in Madison," Gross told The Janesville Gazette (http://bit.ly/1jwd88H). "They saved my life. If I go back to my old ways, I realize how quickly my life will fall apart."
He is determined to turn his situation around.
Gross recently earned a one-year degree in industrial mechanics from Blackhawk Technical College, which is within walking distance.
"It was a program that built on skills I already had," he explained. "Plus I got veterans' educational benefits to pay for it."
For the past year, Gross has been resident manager of the housing program.
"A lot of guys are depressed," he said. "But they confide in each other and treat each other with respect and encouragement."
The building includes 24 studio apartments, each with a kitchenette and bathroom. Two vets live in each unit. In addition, the site includes a community room, resource room with computers and a cafeteria, which provides three nutritious meals a day.
A case manager meets with each veteran at least once a week to review the vet's progress and to keep him on track with his individual goals. Veterans are connected with community-based services and get help with medical needs, mental health issues and finding jobs.
"I appreciate the staff," Gross said. "They have their hands full but maintain a positive attitude and encourage the guys."
He explained that veterans become homeless for many reasons.