U.S. Navy veteran Bryant Smith could not stop shaking his head in awe as he walked around his new, fully furnished apartment in Ward 8.
“I’m so surprised,” he said as he peeked into his new bedroom again. “I wasn’t expecting half of the items I’m looking at right now.”
Following Smith’s divorce, he moved back to D.C. to make a new life for himself. However, he found it was more difficult than he expected. He had a job, but was living out of his car for about one year.
“I basically gave up. I was done with the whole living in a car thing...knowing where I came from, I couldn’t handle it anymore,” said Smith, whose sister told him to seek help at the Office of Veterans Affairs. There at the VA, Smith was partnered with Operation Renewed Hope Foundation where he received therapy, was assisted with transitional housing, and got job assistance.
Smith is one of 12 formerly homeless veterans who received keys to their new apartments at Operation Fresh Start @ Yuma on Thursday. The Jackson Investment Company, LLC, which owns the building, reached out to the District of Columbia Housing Authority because they heard what great work the agency has done in the past in serving and housing DC’s homeless veterans with housing choice vouchers.
“I’m getting off on a good start,” said Smith, who now works in Whole Foods’ human resources department.
“My brother and dad had the idea to work with veterans. DCHA jumped in so fast,” said Tyoka Jackson, owner of The Jackson Investment Company.
For the past three years Jackson and his family have fed veterans every Veterans Day at their two IHOP restaurants in Southeast so it came naturally to make the offer, he said. His father and nephew are veterans and his brother is a police officer, so the family’s respect for service is deeply instilled.
The Jackson family was all smiles at the key ceremony knowing their work was making a difference for these veterans and their families.
“When the Jackson family told me what they wanted to do here, I was moved,” said DCHA Executive Director Adrianne Todman.
DCHA provided HUD VASH (Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing) vouchers to each of these formally homeless veterans to enable them to pay the rents at this totally renovated apartment site. The homeless veterans were referred to DCHA by the local VA Medical Center.
Todman said this building honors the veterans who did so much to keep their country and its people safe. The people who came together to ensure these 12 veterans would get their fresh start are like family.
“Doing this kind of work, it’s spiritual work. It is not routine,” Todman said. “The combination of people who gave from their hearts to make this possible is fantastic...This is family.”
For example, A Wider Circle worked to fully furnish each individual apartment with everything from living room sets and beds down to lamps and nightstands. The Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs created homecare kits with towels, cleaning products, and other useful items. Sardi’s Catering donated a healthy luncheon for the veterans and their guests at the event. The DC VA Medical Center provided flat screen televisions in each unit that were donated to them from a hotel that went out of business.
Ward 8 Council member Trayon White called the Jackson family “pioneers in this community for their effort.” White said that is important to give back to the people “who put their lives on the line” to protect citizens’ rights.
“I’m proud of the vision seen here today on Yuma Street in Southeast,” White said.
Kevin Morton, the homelessness coordinator at D.C.’s Veterans Affairs Medical Center, said the effort to house homeless veterans has been underway since 2008. DCHA has housed well over 1,000 formerly homeless veterans using their unique rapid HUD VASH housing model.
“Once you get settled in, start thinking about purchasing a home, getting a job,” Morton said to the veterans, encouraging them to take steps towards self-sustainability. “That way we can house even more veterans.”
Jackson, a former NFL player, agreed and said that his father’s name for the building, Operation Fresh Start @ Yuma, spoke directly to Morton’s point. He said their veteran partners will be able to fully take advantage of services now that they have stable housing.
“This is a start,” he said. “This is not the end.”
Smith is already making plans. He is thinking about getting his master’s degree. His background is in human resources, but he is thinking about following his passion—art, he said.
“Looking back, giving up was not an option,” Smith said. “Now I’m about my second chance.”
Smith toured his apartment again, shaking his head in disbelief as he made his way past the kitchen into the living room.
“Whatever I put up on my walls I will put together myself,” said Smith, hinting art supplies may be his next household expense.
Other contributing partners to Operation Fresh Start @ Yuma include Eagle Bank, U.S. Vets, E/Loc Construction, Home Team Title, and Moving in Style, a Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned moving company.