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.
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.