The small town of Jackson, N.J., just half an hour’s drive from the Jersey shore, is home to the state’s first transitional housing program for homeless female veterans thanks to the vision and generosity of a local couple driven to serve.
|Mike Lipari, a 36-year member of New Brunswick, N.J., Local 457, and wife Julie Lipari started Guiding Light House to give back to their community and to female service members, who are often underserved by traditional shelter programs.
Mike Lipari, a 36-year member of New Brunswick, N.J., Local 456 says the project, called Guiding Light House, was the chance result of his wife, Julie Lipari, reading a story about female veterans in 2014.
“The five kids were out of the house, and life is so short,” he said. “We just want to help people. Who better to serve than someone who served this country with honor and needs a little bit of help?”
Julie, who comes from a family filled with military service, said she looked around the couple’s 2-acre property, which contains a main house and a standalone apartment in a separate building, and thought she and Mike could do more. “You never hear a lot about female homeless veterans because the government statistics don’t differentiate between men and women,” she said. “But the system isn’t built for women. There are so many problems in mixed housing, and safety is a huge issue.”
The Liparis said they learned that there are 2.2 million female veterans in the U.S., and that roughly 33,000 live in New Jersey. On any given night, as many as 4,000 of those are homeless.
So they set about trying to help. First they went to the town, where the mayor was enthusiastic about the project. But the couple ran into problems when their neighbors balked at welcoming the veterans into the area.
“That was shocking,” Mike said. But he and Julie soldiered on, putting tens of thousands of dollars of their own money into the year-long legal effort to win town approval. It took almost another year, but after paying for lawyers, engineers and jumping through various bureaucratic hoops, Guiding Light House received its state shelter license in 2016.
“It was frustrating, but we kept our eyes on the goal,” Julie said. “There were female veterans who needed our help, and we never forgot that.”
In June, the Liparis welcomed their first resident, who moved into the apartment in need of short-term housing. She hopes to move into her own place soon, opening up the space for a new woman.
Julie has lived in the old farmhouse on the rural property for nearly 30 years, but if all goes to plan, she and Mike, who married in 2011, plan to leave at some point in the future. “When we get a few more residents, we’ll move into the apartment ourselves,” she said, “and turn the main house over to the residents. Then, when we’re ready to grow more, we’ll move out and hire a house manager to take over the day-to-day.”
Ultimately, they plan to host five women at a time for up to 24 months each. The women who live at Guiding Light House will be required to be drug and alcohol-free, in school or working, and the Liparis plan to provide them with career counseling, certified life coaches and a host of wraparound services to help them make the transition from homelessness to self-sufficiency. Referrals will come from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Soldier On, a national homeless veterans program.
Mike, who joined Local 456 at age 19, says his good union job is a big reason he and Julie have been able to put so much into their passion for helping others. “I love what I do, and I know how fortunate I am,” he said. “That’s part of why we want to give back to others who haven’t had it as good as we have.”
In all, the Liparis have put about $80,000 of their own money into the project, which involved Mike tapping his annuity. “We don’t really care about things,” he said. “We’re about people and making a difference in their lives.”
Still, Guiding Light House, which has 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, won’t be sustained on the Liparis’ savings alone. They have a board of directors in place to make decisions for the organization, and they’re raising money through their website.
“We’re paying psychologists and certified life coaches, and everything costs more than you anticipate,” Mike said. “If all our union brothers and sisters can give a few dollars to help these veterans get back on their feet, imagine what we could do.”
Local 456 Business Manager Joe Egan says he’s not surprised that the Liparis have chosen to give so much to female veterans, and he expects other members of his local will be happy to pitch in when the call comes. “Mike’s a caring guy who’s always doing stuff for others” he said. “Giving back to people who served our country is something everyone can get behind.”
In their dream scenario, the Liparis hope someday to use Mike’s construction background and connections to buy homes cheap, fix them up and sell them to veterans transitioning out of the program at a steep discount. “That would be the ultimate gift to these women,” he said. “To get them off the streets, help them readjust to life outside the military, and then make them homeowners. Wherever we can go with this, we’re ready to go.”