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Sexton: Enthusiasm is infectious for veterans project

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Whole Man Ministries

Vietnam veteran Solomon Gore was the first veteran to move into a Homes 4 Our Heroes unit.

Pastor Barry Washington, by nature, is a positive and upbeat sort.

It doesn’t take long for the excitement to mount in his voice when he speaks.

If you ask him about the houses that his organization, Whole Man Ministries, is rehabbing to provide permanent housing for homeless veterans, Washington starts talking even faster and his smile grows ever wider with each sentence.

And why wouldn’t he beam?

Since deciding three years ago that Whole Man Ministries intended to remake five historic houses on Cameron Avenue for homeless veterans, the group has managed to overcome physical and financial obstacles to get to the point where all five could be occupied soon.

“We always had faith. It’s just turned out great, hasn’t it?” Washington said while pointing out the finer points in a nearly completed duplex. “We had to take out all kinds of stuff. Volunteers painted, laid tile, installed ceiling fans, worked on the flooring … it’s practically a brand new house.”

Meeting challenges

No one can appreciate the effort more than Solomon Gore, a 70-year-old Vietnam veteran who in March moved into the first completed unit.

“I’m loving it to death,” he said. “It’s so nice, quiet and peaceful.”

It’s also quite a contrast to where he had been living before becoming the first veteran approved for housing.

For a time, he was staying in his mother’s “old home place.” It caught fire, and there was no insurance to rebuild. After that, he went to the Salvation Army and then entered into a shady agreement by which he would live rent-free in units in dilapidated buildings that may or may not have doors or windows, “fix them up a little” and then move into another run-down place to repeat the cycle.

“It was a little below my standards,” Gore said with a wry grin.

Gerald Green, the housing placement director for the project titled Homes 4 Our Heroes, put it more bluntly.

“It was awful,” he said. “There was no running water and the electricity was faulty. We couldn’t get his application approved fast enough.”

To get to the point where they could even consider applications, Whole Man Ministries had a lot to deal with.

The organization — a nonprofit with a mission to contribute to the development of a person’s body, mind and spirit — bought the five vacant duplex houses in 2013 and quickly learned what real-estate agents really mean by “handyman’s special.”

“Oh man, it was more work than I thought,” Washington said. “We thought each building would be about $30,000 to fix, but we were wrong. Each one has been $125,000 to $135,000. We had to gut them completely, redo the electricity, new wall studs, new flooring, you name it.”

But because Washington is who he is and believes wholeheartedly in the power of collaboration, he has been able to cobble together an impressive list of partners, including Lowe’s Companies Inc., The Home Depot Foundation, Gwyn Electrical Plumbing Heating Cooling, Coe Electric & Plumbing, Wells Fargo and BB&T. The companies helped financially, with material and labor, and by providing eager volunteers.

The city of Winston-Salem assisted with a pair of zero percent, 15-year loans for $201,028 to convert two of the duplexes into three-bedroom, single-family houses.

“We can make a dollar spend like $10,” Washington said.

The homestretch

Looking down Cameron Avenue from 14th Street, a special finishing touch makes it obvious to any passers-by exactly what’s going on here.

A large mural showing an American flag waving gently in the breeze is painted on the side of a duplex closest to the road, and each of the five houses has a new flag hanging smartly from its front porch.

Around back, the final touches are being applied to a common area for all residents to share. Picnic tables and a barbecue pit, Washington said, should help promote an even deeper sense of community.

“Winston-Salem really is leading the way (in working to alleviate homelessness among veterans),” Green said. “We get calls from the VA in Salisbury, from Greensboro, from all over asking about these houses.”

Potential residents come to Whole Man Ministries from all sorts of agencies serving veterans. Once selected, depending on their individual situations, veterans can also find help setting up utilities and with furnishings.

“It really is permanent housing,” Washington said.

As of now, the two single-family houses and two duplex units are occupied. Washington is hopeful that two more veterans can move into a duplex later this month and two more in another by early spring.

“It’s exciting to be able to help somebody who was homeless and falling through the cracks and see them turn their lives around,” Washington said. “There is no ‘face to homelessness’ … a lot of people are a paycheck away from being homeless.

“It’s psychological and tears at the soul of a person.”

As he spoke, Washington’s voice grew louder and his words came quicker. He was rolling, and he was excited. You could hear it and feel it.

And if you drive down 14th Street and look down the hill on Cameron Avenue, you can see why.

ssexton@wsjournal.com (336) 727-7481

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