Jason Smith can recall little details of the phone call that changed his life: He was in his car, with a friend. The voice notified him he’d been awarded a free house.
For Smith, 28, a retired Army specialist whose year in Afghanistan left him with back pain, bone spurs in his feet and traumatic brain injury, the house was a godsend.
“I was ecstatic,” he said.
The Smiths and their daughter, 15-month-old Imani, moved from Ohio into their Blaine townhouse in December. They thanked the Military Warriors Support Foundation and Chase for the transformative donation in a Thursday ceremony at the Anoka County Veterans Memorial Park in Bunker Hill Park.
Homelessness has been a problem among veterans because of the jarring transition period from military to civilian life, said Dave Lieske of the Military Warriors Support Foundation. Yet there is progress. The number of homeless veterans has gone from about 75,600 veterans in 2009 to 57,800 veterans in 2013 — a drop of 24 percent, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“I think more and more people are paying attention,” Lieske said.
The Homes 4 Wounded Heroes program is one of those several options for injured veterans. A subset of the Military Warriors Support Foundation, it grants mortgage-free homes to wounded veterans and pairs them with mentors for their first three years as homeowners. Most homes are previously foreclosed, Lieske said.
The Smiths’ family members were in attendance at the ceremony, which included remarks from Tom Ryan, Blaine’s mayor and a disabled veteran, as well as words from state Sen. Alice Johnson and Rep. Tim Sanders of Blaine.
“I just want to let Jason know that he’s moved to a terrific city — a city that doesn’t forget vets,” Ryan said.
‘In the presence of a hero’
Lieske said the program has given away 552 homes, including about 10 in Minnesota. It’s totaled about $110 million in free homes, coming from sponsorships and donations. The program plans to give away 1,000 homes in the next two years, he said.
Veterans eligible for the program are wounded, honorably separated from the military and don’t have mortgages.
The organization receives more than 1,000 requests for homes each year, Lieske said.
Tague Moehn, a mortgage banker at Chase — which donated the Smiths’ home — said the house cost about $30,000 to $40,000 to renovate.
AT&T sponsored Smith’s mentor from Military Warriors Support Foundation and is working to hire 10,000 veterans over the next several years, said Paul Weirtz, the state president of AT&T. Weirtz himself is a Marine Corps veteran.
“It’s just a real honor to be in the presence of a hero,” Weirtz said.
Feeling at home
Jason Smith went to Afghanistan in 2010; in 2011 he was hit by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan while driving a Humvee. He came back to the U.S. a few months later and was discharged from the Army in 2012.
The Smiths weren’t homeless before the house in Blaine. They were living in Mount Vernon, Ohio, but it wasn’t working. The local VA facility for Jason Smith’s treatment was too crowded, too far away and lacked adequate treatment for his traumatic brain injury.
They knew Minnesota had one of the best VA systems for his injury, but worried about home prices in the Twin Cities metro area.
Their home is about 1,300 square feet with a balcony and an American flag hanging next to the garage.
With the move, things have gotten better, he said. His wife found a job with Living Well Disability Services as a program coordinator, his quality of life has improved and the new home is just 25 minutes from a VA facility.
Still, things aren’t perfect. Jason Smith can’t work because of his injuries, and is on Social Security and pain medications. But Trizer Smith has been with him since they met in 2011 after he returned from Afghanistan. They married in 2013.
Thinking back to the moment they discovered they’d gotten the house, Trizer Smith said her husband cried. He denied it; he remembered she had cried. She protested, laughing.
“He always says that,” she said.
“We were overjoyed,” he added. “It was life-changing, really.”