BILLINGS — Bill Wagner has lived at 503 Cook Ave. for 36 years.
Before that, he lived half a block to the east and before that, right across the street. Suffice to say, the neigborhood is Bill’s home.
"It’s wonderful. You have a good, stable neighborhood and I like it here," the 71-year-old said.
Unfortunately, Bill’s house is not very stable. There are numerous broken windows, cracks in the siding, and a roof so full of holes that Bill has had to move down to the basement.
The city’s code enforcement division keeps a Dirty Dozen list of the most problematic properties in town, and this is No. 1.
"The case has been open since 2019," said code enforcement manager Tina Hoeger. "It did end up in court, and the judge ordered an abatement."
That means a judge gave the city power to do what they deem necessary - in this case, demolish the house. But Hoeger, who just joined the department in January, wasn’t about to do that.
"We’re not going to take someone’s house down and create a homeless situation for this person," she said. "So we brainstormed. At one point I asked if he was a veteran, because I know there are programs to help veterans.”
Turns out, he is. Bill spent four years as a Navy aviation mechanic from 1971-75 before moving back to Montana. He’s a member of the local VA clinic, but the VA can’t do much about his housing repairs. That’s where Miguel Gonzales comes in.
"We help in areas where the VA or vet center doesn’t help with," Gonzales said.
Seven years ago, Gonzales - an Iraq war veteran - started Warrior Wishes Montana, a non-profit designed to fill in the gaps, helping vets with whatever they may need. He’d seen a case like Bill’s before.
"About six years ago, we had another veteran who needed new siding on his house, or he was going to get kicked out of the court he was in," Gonzales said. "There's a man in town named Lance who works for Home Depot. He called and told me that Home Depot had set $50 million aside to help veterans with these kinds of crises.”
The catch is they're only able to help non-profit organizations. Hoeger can’t go to the Home Depot Foundation on the city’s behalf, so Gonzales makes it possible. Now all they need is someone to do the work.
"Miguel reached out to me and asked if I can lend a hand, and I said no problem," Ryan Kovach said.
Because Kovach and his partner Tim Kirby are both veterans, and that’s what this brotherhood does.
"If there’s a veteran in need, it hits home," Kovach said. "We’ve all needed some help at one point and it’s nice to know that there’s help out there."
Kovach and Kirby hope to start work by mid-June and are donating their labor completely free of charge, and with the Home Depot Foundation covering the materials, Bill gets to stay in the only place he’s ever known.
"To not have to pack up and move, and throw everything out," Wagner said fighting back tears, "it's wonderful."
"I know this is outside the code enforcement box," Hoeger added, "but what’s the point of doing anything if you’re not willing to help the people in your community?”
Spoken like a true veteran.