‘I’m not a bum’ ... Marietta veteran battles to win house back, find a job
by Leo Hohmann
January 09, 2014 12:00 AM | 8787 views | 19 19 comments | 50 50 recommendations | email to a friend | print
College educated architect and Vietnam War veteran John Chambers, who has been living homeless in his minivan for a year, checks on his former home in the Victory Park Community of Marietta. His Parkview Drive home was foreclosed on by Freddie Mac and Wells Fargo Bank, which he is currently fighting in court. <br>Staff/Kelly J. Huff
College educated architect and Vietnam War veteran John Chambers, who has been living homeless in his minivan for a year, checks on his former home in the Victory Park Community of Marietta. His Parkview Drive home was foreclosed on by Freddie Mac and Wells Fargo Bank, which he is currently fighting in court.
Staff/Kelly J. Huff
slideshow
Chambers prepares for another cold night inside his minivan in a Wal-Mart parking lot with his dog, Scout. Chambers has everything he owns inside the van and is fighting to get his house back.
Chambers prepares for another cold night inside his minivan in a Wal-Mart parking lot with his dog, Scout. Chambers has everything he owns inside the van and is fighting to get his house back.
slideshow
As midnight approached on the coldest night of the year John Chambers had a decision to make.

He could stay huddled with his dog under the goose-down comforter in the back of his Toyota minivan. Or he could do something he hasn’t done since the bank evicted him from his house one year ago today.

Chambers said his survival instincts overrode his desire to conserve the precious fuel in his gas tank.

“I cranked up the engine,” he said. “I let it run for several minutes until it warmed up.”

Chambers would start the car three more times that night, as temperatures dropped to 5 degrees Tuesday morning in Marietta.

The 65-year-old Vietnam veteran, an architectural draftsman by trade, lives in his minivan with his 7-year-old male Border Collie, Scout.

He’s fighting for his life now, or rather a way of life that he refuses to let go, despite all of the bad things that have happened to him over the past year.

He has been living out of the van parked at a Wal-Mart off Cobb Parkway south of Roswell Street, since mortgage giant Freddie Mac evicted him

Jan. 9, 2013.

“It was a wrongful foreclosure that got me out in the streets,” he said. “I’ve been having kind of bad luck but still have my hopes up. I have a lawsuit pending and have placed a lien on the house so they can’t sell it as long as the suit is active.”

He said spending the night in his car on two of the coldest nights in history “isn’t as bad as people think. I’ve got lots of blankets and my dog. He’s stuck with me through all this, and he puts out a lot of heat.”

Legal fees piling up

After spending more than $20,000 in legal fees to reclaim a house he admits is only worth about $50,000, Chambers has reached the ends of frustration.

Wearing a fedora and a tweed sweater, the gray-bearded, slender man stood in the frigid late afternoon air Tuesday and opened a vinyl portfolio filled with pictures of the buildings he designed as a civilian contractor in Iraq from 2004 to 2006.

“I went to help the troops,” he said. “I designed facilities for the troops, a mess hall, a movie theater.”

In the other hand he held a copy of the lawsuit he has pending against Freddie Mac in Cobb Superior Court.

The house he is fighting to keep is a small bungalow on Parkview Drive in Marietta’s Victory Park community. It’s less than half a mile from the Wal-Mart parking lot where he now spends his nights, within view of the city’s most famous landmark, “The Big Chicken” of KFC.

He said he’s poured everything he had into the little two-bedroom, one-bath house over the 18 years in which it served as home. He spent about $50,000 on renovations, he said, and wanted it to be a model project that others in the historic Victory Park neighborhood could use as inspiration to fix up their homes.

Returning ghosts

A few years after he returned from Iraq, he started struggling with bouts of depression. He started having flashbacks to combat scenes in Vietnam, where he said he “called in a lot of fire” as a radio operator. It got so bad that he forgot to mail in his mortgage payment one month in 2009 and by the time he realized what had happened, he fell three months behind on his payments.

“I had money and was ready to pay what I owed but they told me not to send them any money,” he said. “They said ‘Don’t send us any money. We want to put you into a loan modification program.’”

Then one day in February 2009, he got the surprise of his life.

“Next thing I know, there was a real estate person knocking on my door saying they had sold my house,” he said.

Wells Fargo, his original lender, had sold his home to Freddie Mac for $46,000, roughly the amount Chambers had owed after 18 years of making payments on the mortgage.

After a series of eviction notices and reprieves, Chambers said his lawyers thought they had an agreement with Freddie Mac’s lawyers on a loan modification program that would allow him to stay in the house.

He said he has copies of all the documents showing he was approved for the program.

“He’s still trying to win the battle,” said Regina Stamps, a Marietta attorney and a personal friend of Chambers who did the original legal work on his case.

“He spends his money, what he has, on attorneys, but none have been able to get anywhere,” Stamps said. “He’s limited, he’s on a fixed income, but now money is not the only issue. The police know about him and they check on him regularly.”

Eviction, or illegal raid?

On Jan. 9, 2013, Stamps said she just happened to drive by Chambers’ house and witnessed a group of men throwing Chambers’ belongings out, much of it breaking into pieces as it hit the concrete below his porch.

Chambers said the eviction happened without any notice or warning.

“I drove up and they were tossing my things out the door,” he said.

Mirrors were broken, photographs ruined, he found his watch in the yard, “and his things were just hauled off as trash,” Stamps said.

His architectural drawing board was thrown off the porch and laid smashed on the brick steps, his bed was broken, his clothes thrown into a pile in the dirt.

“I was in shock. I couldn’t believe it,” Stamps recalls. “He lost most of what he owned. I saw it. Other people saw it. I broke down, just sat right there and cried.”

Stamps said she tried to find Chambers an attorney who had more expertise in foreclosure cases.

“I was there as his friend and to help him find a lawyer who could take on that type of a case. These are very difficult cases that require special expertise,” she said. “Dealing with Freddie Mac is like swimming with alligators.”

Chambers went through three more attorneys. None had any luck fighting Freddie Mac.

“I was there when he paid his attorneys,” Stamps said. “That’s what he is using his money for rather than his personal expenses. I know it for a fact. I was there every time a payment was made.”

Chambers said he is now interviewing new lawyers to take up his case.

Living on the edge

On Christmas Eve, several local police officers came and gave him a donation of about $10 each and wished him well on his legal fight to reclaim his home on Parkview Drive.

“I can’t say enough about the Marietta Police Department,” Chambers said. “They come by and check on me all the time. This is my one-year anniversary of living in my car. Freddie Mac is spending more on lawyers to fight me than the house is worth and that just doesn’t make sense. Especially since I was qualified for a loan modification. Hopefully that will make an impression on the judge and she will ask them, what are you doing in here? Why are you taking the court’s time?”

The case is assigned to Judge Mary Staley.

Until he gets his day in court, Chambers has decided to live in the minivan. Inside, there are suits hanging in the back, waiting to be worn to a job interview. Fast-food napkins, empty dog-food wrappers and drink bottles can be seen on the floorboard, a plastic bag holding toothpaste and other toiletries sits on the dash. He said he showers at a local recreation center.

Sometimes passing the time can be challenging.

“I read a lot, I play with my dog, I do a lot of crossword puzzles,” he said.

He says he’s learned a lot in the minivan over the past year.

“I’ve had times of depression, but after you have a lot of time in solitude, you can bring up your spirits and see the positives,” he said. “I licked my wounds, I had to crawl out of my shell. I’ve just now come out of it.”

He worked at Wal-Mart assembling bicycles for 11 months, but after a recent kidney stone operation, he said the store found out he didn’t have a stable residence and he wasn’t invited back.

“I had worked for them until they found out I was homeless and they let me go,” Chambers said. “They said if I got a place to stay they would be happy to give me my job back.

“I just have to laugh about all this because I can’t understand it.”

“It’s a domino effect. If you ever have any hardships in life, that’s what you’ll learn.”

In the minivan, he was able to cope.

“It’s almost like, I kind of wanted the world to go away,” he said. “It’s almost like my safe zone.”

Ready for a new beginning

But after a year of soul searching and solitude, Chambers says he faces the new year more focused and rejuvenated. He wants to find full-time work in his field of architecture.

“I have a really good work history and a portfolio. I’m not a bum,” he said.

He said he went to a food bank Monday but they told him he’d have to see an addiction counselor before he could get any food.

“So they’re automatically assuming that if you’re homeless you’re an alcoholic or a drug user,” he said. “And it’s true that most are, but not all of us. I don’t do drugs and I don’t do alcohol, but I’m out here.”

He said he was married once “a long time ago,” but has been single ever since and has no children.

“A lot of my architect friends have run away because it looks pretty dire,” he said. “It looks pretty bad.”

The cold winter nights aren’t fun, but the alternatives are worse, he said.

“I don’t want to live in a tent with a bunch of winos. I’d rather live in my car with my dog. He keeps me company,” Chambers said. “So I choose to live in my car.

“It helps me with my self-esteem because I’m not asking anybody for anything. I’m not living off of food stamps, I’m not living on government assistance.”

He gets by with a small Social Security check and a military pension, enough to buy food for himself and his dog and keep gas in his tank.

“All my money goes to the attorneys,” he said. “I chose to fight. And here I am.”

Chambers applied for an apartment in a public housing complex but was denied.

“I have an eviction, they said, so I can’t even get a place to live in this country, because I have something on my credit now. I’m fighting that too. So I’m fighting on two fronts.”

Even the preacher at the local church he was attending let him down, he says. He said he asked if he could put a flier advertising his work qualifications on the church bulletin board, “because I desperately need a job.”

The preacher told him he would call back later with an answer.

“That was three weeks ago,” Chambers said. “I still haven’t heard from him.”

And so he goes on.

Living in his car.

Not asking for help.

He doesn’t beg or hold a sign up for the world to see.

All he asks for now is a job.

Some people have told him to drop his lawsuit and move on, maybe move to another city and start over, wherever he can find work.

“A house is just an investment to some folks, to be bought and sold. I don’t buy into that mindset,” said the Marietta native. “To me, my house is my home. I’ve been fighting for a year and I plan on getting my house back. It’s the girl I want. I don’t want her sister. I want this one. I have faith in Marietta. It’s a wonderful place to live and it’s going to be an even better place to live in the future.”

His faith remains in tact.

“I’m a Christian. I believe in God. I pray. I am sure I’m learning something from this,” he said. “I will be very grateful when that happens.”

Through it all, he’s still able to look at his situation and laugh.

“I plan on burning this van when I get a job and get my house back,” he said.

Comments
(19)
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Help a Human
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January 10, 2014
How many people running around helping that dog in Marietta, spending all that time and effort, would put the same effort into helping this man? Maybe if we did that things would be different.
Know Neighborhood
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January 09, 2014
I can't believe the MDJ wasted the time and paper on this story. I have met Mr. Chambers and he is a scary person. I would not stop to give him the time of day. He needs to commit himself to mental facility. Look at the house on real estate site, he destroyed the house. The City of Marietta should condemn the house and tear it down.
Native 30067
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January 09, 2014
Wow, excellent story MDJ!

Why were those eviction thugs allowed to destroy his stuff? That alone deserves an investigation.

Not all homeless people are without pride, as proven by Mr. Chambers. Best of luck getting a fair hearing!

Missing the Message
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January 09, 2014
It's a lot easier to try and find ways that he handled the situation incorrectly than it is to imagine ourselves in his shoes, isn't it? Picture your social safety net: family, friends, neighbors. Now picture life without them. Now add in depression. Most of us are probably just these two steps away from being just as vulnerable as Mr. Chambers.

I applaud the Marietta Daily Journal for this excellent article that presents one of the many varied examples of the tragedy of homelessness. Hopefully it has provided those with trouble identifying with people outside of their socio-economic standing with a path to understanding and love.
Tony Cain
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January 09, 2014
This could happen to anyone. It doesn't take but one mistake, one forgotten payment after decades of work. Every day I meet at least one homeless person, and there are plenty of others who are tottering on the edge of being homeless. Better really think about this. Major changes need to be made. God knows we can do better.
Mike In Smyrna
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January 09, 2014
The math does not compute. In 2009, he forgot to mail his mortgage payment for three months. In February 2009 a real estate person informs him that his house has been sold.

Did he refinance to make renovations and then defaulted on the refinance?

Military pension? Did he retire from the service? How many tours in Nam?

Maybe I am too skeptical – However, this story is full of holes. I believe that Mr. Chamblers would benefit from taking with the addiction counselor – it is a starting point.

Leo Hohmann
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January 09, 2014
Mike, it was hard for him to remember all of the dates exactly as much of this happened two to three years ago, so it's possible the dates could be a month or two off? Perhaps it was late 2008 when he forgot the first payment but I did the best I could with the man's memory of the events. If you are skeptical, go talk to the man yourself. I spent an hour with him in person and talked on the phone for close to another hour, then also spoke with his attorney. He did not exhibit any of the tendencies of a substance abuser and his attorney friend assured me he was clean in that way.
ECPP
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January 09, 2014
Where in the world does the idea of addiction come from? Why is it not possible that this story is being told as it is truly happening? Maybe you are too skeptical. What series of misfortune in your life has led to your giving up on humanity? How sad for you.
Regina Stamps
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January 11, 2014
Again, excellent questions:



1. Mr. Chambers means the realtor told him his home was "sold," as in "foreclosed" (sold on the courthouse steps), and had been put on the market for re-sale by Freddy Mac. He kept the business card of the realtor that knocked on his door that day, kept it in his wallet, which is why it was not destroyed in the eviction.

Before and after the foreclosure in September 2009, Mr. Chambers was in loan modification with his lender and Freddy Mac (both must approve a loan modification). During the loan modification process, which stretched out for four years (2009-2013), the eviction was placed "on hold" by Freddy Mac. Without notice, on January 9, 2013, an eviction crew arrived at Mr. Chambers' home, pried off the deadbolt and door knob on the front door, and (violently) removed his belongings. Mr. Chambers happened to return home during the eviction.

2. Mr. Chambers did refinance, shortly after he purchased the home in 1998, but long before the foreclosure in 2009.

3. Mr. Chambers did one tour in Vietnam, in active combat, for which he received 6 medals, including a Bronze Star. He was 19 years old. During the War in Iraq, many years later, Mr. Chambers again served in a war zone in Iraq, as a civilian architect, assisting in building facilities for the soldiers. He was in an area where mortar rockets often exploded, almost daily. Many times the facilities were hit, a bunker was hit for example, and had to be rebuilt. There were casualties.

4. Mr. Chambers does not receive a military pension.

Cobb Taxpayer
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January 09, 2014
Very hard to buy-in to the details of this story - has this stuff been validated ? Something is just plain goofy about all of these details. Architect, Viet Nam, Iraq etc etc
RE: Cobb Taxpayer
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January 09, 2014
Goofy about the details? Did you think long and hard about the goofy details sitting in your warm home while the man is living in his car?

You know where he lives, go ask him.
ECPP
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January 09, 2014
Why is it hard to buy in to the details? There is not a lot about this that is different from others who have bee victims of overly-aggressive banks. Validated? Was there some type of science experiment that took place?
Laura Armstrong
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January 10, 2014
I would assume Mr. Hohmann, an editor and journalist of some experience, has checked his facts beyond spending an hour with this man.

It is true that many people you read about being "homeless veterans" are not telling the truth. Additionally, some organizations (I won't name them) gain access to federal grants for things like housing homeless veterans (and possibly inflating their numbers because no one really knows, right?) and then when they are awarded the grants the money perhaps is spent on other things because, all of a sudden, they cannot find the veterans. The last grant awarded that I can recall would have allowed $18,000 PER VETERAN for housing (its intended purpose). Unfortunately, people's memories are short and after the initial announcement of the grant won, no one followed up. A few years later, the non-profit was sporting a nice, new building. Unfortunately, unless you are a journalist with lots of resources and support you aren't going to get very far investigating such things on your own. Unfortunately every time an organization scores a grant like this, there are REAL veterans out there who get shortchanged. Officials rationalize this spreading of the wealth to those who do not deserve it is just part of the way things work. People need to pay more attention, but sadly, do not.
lisak56
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January 21, 2014
How sad it must be to be so hard hearted Cobb Taxpayer. I hope that you never meet the same fate. You are not capable of handling hardship.
Kennesaw resident
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January 09, 2014
What a horrible tale. Wonder how many more stories similar to this one are out there?

Hopefully there are people in Cobb County who can help with money and/or a job. Good luck Mr. Chambers and thank you MDJ for having this story on the MDJ first page.
Paul M. Black AIA
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January 09, 2014
I read this article with great concern for Mr. Chambers. However, referring to him as an Architect is misleading.

In the State of Georgia only persons who have met the State’s standards for education, training and licensure can legally call themselves an “Architect”. My research at the website of the Secretary of State for the State of Georgia shows there is no Architect by that name licensed by the State of Georgia. Mr. Chambers lists himself as an Architectural Draftsman on some websites.

I also think you should be very careful about presenting this as a story of individual distress, when it may be the story of one man's legal battles and experiment in minimalist living. If that's the case,then perhaps he has chosen this as a lifestyle.

Regina Stamps
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January 11, 2014
Excellent Question!

Mr. Chambers is an architect, meaning he has a college degree in architecture, but he is not a Registered Architect. He is eligible to become a Registered Architect should he choose to take the necessary tests. Registered Architects are listed on the AIA website.
Laura Armstrong
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January 09, 2014
This is an outrage, if we are hearing the correct story. Walmart management, the shelter (which one please?), Freddie Mac (with kudos to the Obama administration's heartless refusal to do anything to help the economy) the church pastor (who should be ashamed) have all failed this man, as has our entire community. And what about the VA? We've come to expect not much from them, when here is a classic case of a veteran in need of their social services.

Please editors, follow up on Mr. Chambers for us until his immediate problem (living in his van) is solved, which, hopefully after today, will be within hours. If ever there was a time for a community to step up, it's for this veteran.

LisaK56
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January 21, 2014
Laura Armstrong - do you seriously believe that President Obama had a hand in Mr. Chambers' eviction. I would be significantly more impressed with your dismay at Mr. Chambers' horrible situation had you been able to keep your political beliefs out of your comment.
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