For homeless veteran and former wife, a new home and a marriage renewed

  • Article by: JIM ADAMS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 10, 2013 - 3:00 PM

An Anoka County homeless shelter provided a wedding — with rings, cake and shower gifts — and other support as a military veteran and his former wife remarried.

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Iraq war veteran Kawayn Johnson with his wife, Clarise, and their three children, Sierra, 10, left, Jayden Jones, 6, center, and Kawayn Johnson, 11, right, sat in their new home

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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Iraq war veteran Kawayn Johnson and his homeless family came to Family Promise in Anoka County hoping to find a home and work.

Kawayn and Clarise Johnson, who had divorced after his military service, not only found a home and a job, but ended up getting remarried with a little help from new friends.

Clarise Johnson found an apartment for her family of five on the Internet while using a computer at the day center of Family Promise. The nonprofit agency is an interfaith network working with 18 Anoka County congregations that take turns providing shelter, meals and activities for homeless families a week at a time in their churches. The Johnsons, including three kids ages 6 to 11, lived at the churches with three or four other families for nearly two months.

The families are taken by van at about 7 each morning to the day center, housed at Lord of Life Lutheran in Ramsey. The Johnsons, both 33, obtained marital counseling at the church. Clarise found a short-term house-cleaning job.

About the time the family was moving into their apartment on Nov. 1, they received a notice from the Veterans Administration saying Johnson would receive little rent money if he was living with an unmarried partner, who would have to share rent costs. When they told Family Promise Executive Director Irene Rodriguez, she asked if they were considering remarriage, as being married would increase Kawayn’s VA benefits enough to cover the rent at their apartment in Plymouth.

“I really wanted to be married,” Clarise recalled telling Rodriguez. Kawayn, sitting nearby in their living room, said the same.

So Rodriguez blasted e-mails to some of Family Promise’s 800 mostly church volunteers in early November.

“We put together a quaint wedding for them in about 10 days,” Rodriguez said.

Faith Lutheran in Coon Rapids gave the couple a gift card to buy wedding shower gifts, Rodriguez said. A baker made a two-tier wedding cake. A retired minister married them Nov. 18 and provided lunch afterward at his Ramsey home. Lord of Life hosted the reception.

During the ceremony, when the pastor asked for rings, the Johnsons were amazed to see Rodriguez produce two gold bands donated by Gould’s Jewelry of Anoka.

“I was crying because so many blessings had come from our [homeless] situation,” Clarise said.

“It was the wedding I always wanted her to have,” her husband said. At their first wedding, it was just the two of them and their baby boy in an Alabama courthouse. That was in 2002, six months before he was deployed to serve in the Iraq war as a member of the U.S. Army, Kawayn Johnson said. He returned a year later with post traumatic stress disorder and began drinking, which precipitated their divorce, he said. He quit drinking when they reunited about a year ago.

‘Kind of crazy,’ but homelike

Clarise Johnson said living in the Anoka churches was a godsend after staying in her sister’s cramped apartment or living in their car.

“We had our own space for the family. The volunteers were very welcoming,” she said.

“It was kind of crazy, but it was like living in a house,” her husband added.

Clarise Johnson said Rodriguez and Family Promises’ social worker (the agency’s only two paid staff) were supportive when she got overwhelmed with the situation or dealing with Kawayn. He said he is being treated for PTSD and has trust issues after being shot at by seemingly harmless teenagers in the Iraq fighting.

“There was always somebody to talk to,” Clarise said. “I felt we were injured and they were the crutches that held us up.”

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