Veterans give a lot to serve our country. And at times, finding safe and affordable housing prevents them from enjoying their first months back at home. Journey Home Minnesota is out to change that.
The organization renovates and builds affordable rental housing, with the long-term goal of veteran tenants building financial and vocational self-sufficiency, and eventually, buying their homes outright. They started small, finishing one unit in Shoreview in 2009, and others in Mounds View and White Bear Lake in 2010.
“People realized those houses didn’t wreck their city. And from the beginning, we thought ‘let’s do affordable housing differently than others do, make it a fun and positive experience for all involved,’” says Journey Home executive director and founder Blake Huffman, who’s also a Ramsey County Commissioner. He explains that after families are selected, they are involved in the design and building process, and their homes are as close to “theirs” as they can be.
Today, there are over 40 Journey Home units in more than a dozen communities, and the organization has built a positive reputation among the veteran community and municipalities. The process often starts with referrals of veterans in need or vacant properties that just need a little TLC to become less of an eyesore and get back on the tax rolls. And throughout the building process and beyond, veterans are supported with mentoring, vocational training, and employment and financial resources—so they can thrive long-term. It’s a simple, sustainable and holistic business model that’s a win-win for all involved.
“It’s the most fun thing in the world—we’re making a huge difference in people’s lives, while just being normal people,” Huffman says. “I mean, seriously, if my kids saw me with a hammer, they’d run! But it’s shameful the way we, broadly, treat our veterans. It’s not acceptable to have them living in sub-standard housing. I’m an American, and I’m a man of action. I think we should drop what we’re doing and go fix that.”
What Huffman lacks in building skills, the former Wells Fargo vice president makes up for in financial savvy, connections and perseverance. He and his team have amassed a network of volunteers, vendors and tradespeople to help fill needs when they arise. Donors give financially and in-kind, and volunteer labor keeps costs down. Saint Paul College carpentry classes even use Journey Home sites for hands-on learning experiences.
The newest Journey Home cluster is in Vadnais Heights, on Garceau and Arcade behind City Hall. A 1,400-square-foot, single-family home and neighboring 2,000-square-foot duplex unit, which will be home to three families, is currently being finished. Like all new Journey Home units, the homes are wheelchair-friendly, with roll-under cabinets, wider hallways and fewer steps.
“But half of veterans’ injuries aren’t things we can see,” says Huffman. In multi-unit buildings, hefty soundproofing—in the form of 18-inch separation walls of solid sheetrock and wood—helps alleviate symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “They’re as soundproof as you can physically make them,” Huffman says.
That was on the list of requests for Daniel Hanson of Shoreview. He served for four years with the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC), joining two other brothers in the Marines and one in the Navy. Their mom served in the Army, and “military runs deep in our family,” says Hanson.
He completed two tours with the USMC infantry—including one during the Battle of Ramadi, Iraq, which claimed 34 lives and injured 300 more of his fellow Marines. When he returned to the States, he was dealing with the psychological trauma and lingering physical side effects of what he had experienced, in addition to major transitions in his personal life while raising four kids—now ages 3, 5, 8 and 11. At one point, they were displaced and living in a family member’s spare bedroom. “I had a job, but I was definitely among the ‘working poor,’” says Hanson.
Their new home’s main floor has wider hallways and a larger shower. Hanson sometimes uses a cane, and though he’s not there yet, might need to use a wheelchair down the road. Most importantly, having a separate, quiet home for his family over the last year has helped eliminate the nightmares and psychological side effects of serving in the military.
“Not having to worry about housing has alleviated some of the stress of coming home. I went through a really rough patch, and it meant a lot to be able to work with Journey Home. They were so understanding, so compassionate and easy to work with,” says Hanson. “And the biggest thing? It’s not just about the house. They make sure I’m supported, and they follow up with me to make sure I’m making progress. It’s cool to have an organization like that backing you because they genuinely care about you as a person. It really was life-changing.”