He also woke up with hope.
Chambers, a 65-year-old Vietnam veteran and native of Marietta, has been homeless since losing his house to foreclosure in January 2013. He said his outlook on life has taken a drastic turn upwards since the MDJ first reported his story Thursday.
While government agencies and mega-corporations may have failed him — his mortgage lender evicted him without warning, his employer let him go after finding out he was homeless and the Veterans Administration gave him the run-around when he tried to find alternative housing — the people of Cobb County have opened their hearts and stepped up to show their support for a veteran in need.
“I’m so overwhelmed I really don’t know what to say,” Chambers said Friday night, just before checking into a local hotel paid for by the American Legion Post 29 in Marietta.
Chambers had lived for a year in his Toyota minivan along with his dog, Scout, in the parking lot of the Wal-Mart on Cobb Parkway at Roswell Street.
“Too many things have happened to tell you,” since the story hit the newsstands Thursday morning, he said. “Tons of people have come out to the car, dropping off food, cards, asking how they can help, telling me I could stay the night in their house. This is surreal. I don’t want to be in the limelight, really. I’m a little uncomfortable by it. But it humbles me. People coming by, giving me money, giving me groceries. People have been coming out of the woodwork all day.”
Ken Buechel, the service officer for Post 29 of the American Legion, said he read the story in the MDJ and knew the post had to do something.
“He’s got food, he’s got lodging right now, we needed to get him cleaned up and see if he can get a job,” Buechel said. “We will do what we can for a few weeks to get him stabilized. That’s our goal. So hopefully the community can get him back on his feet and get him where he can take care of himself.”
More than 100 visits
Chambers said at least 100 people made personal visits to his minivan in the two days since his story was published. The MDJ has also fielded dozens of calls and emails from local readers asking how they can help the former architectural draftsman who served in Vietnam and later in Iraq as a private contractor who helped build facilities for U.S. troops.
He told the MDJ all he wanted was a job and to get his house back. The house, on Parkview Drive not far from the Wal-Mart parking lot where he’s been living, is tied up in litigation with mortgage giant Freddie Mac.
“One guy came by and gave me a hundred bucks and said he’s in the insurance business and he’s going to try and get me a job as an insurance adjuster,” Chambers said. “I worked as an adjuster on Hurricane Irene, so I can do that. I don’t have a whole lot of experience, but I certainly can do it.”
Another woman brought $200 and “a big bag of top-of-the-line dog food” for his best friend and companion, a 7-year-old male Border Collie named Scout.
He’s received scores of cards, small donations and offers to let him and Scout live for free in basement apartments or extra rooms.
Then, late Friday, the American Legion came through and put him up at a local extended-stay hotel.
Attorneys have offered to take on his civil suit against Freddie Mac on a pro bono basis.
And that’s not all.
Melody Unger, a real estate agent with Keller Williams Realty in Smyrna, said she read about Chambers’ situation and “I just couldn’t get it out of my mind. I couldn’t sleep that night.”
Unger said she contacted her attorney, Elizabeth Cook, and shared the story with her. The two women have now formed a nonprofit organization, JRC Home Fund Inc., to which people can donate money to help save Chambers’ home.
“If we can just get 100 people to donate $500 I feel like we could probably get the house for $50,000,” Unger said.
The little two-bedroom bungalow is owned by the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp., also called Freddie Mac, but cannot be sold until Chambers drops or settles the lawsuit he has pending against the massive corporation. In the suit, assigned to Superior Court Judge Mary Staley, Chambers alleges he was wrongfully evicted without proper notice and was fraudulently led to believe he would be put into a loan modification program.
Unger has also arranged to have a Facebook page created on Chambers’ behalf. Her plan is to get enough support for the nonprofit to buy the house from Freddie Mac and then deed it over to Chambers.
“He is a man of conviction and you don’t run into that very often,” Unger said. “If I had to leave my dogs to live someplace I’d live out of my car, too.”
Chambers is on board with the plan.
“She’s trying to get investors to actually buy my house, which would be my best bet because I’d like to drop this lawsuit like a hot potato,” said Chambers, who has spent more than $22,000 on legal fees trying to reclaim his house.
Chambers missed a few payments on his mortgage in 2009 and said his original lender, Wells Fargo, would not let him make the back payments to catch up. The house was sold to Freddie Mac on Sept. 1, 2009 for $45,500, according to records on file with the Cobb Tax Assessor’s office.
Freddie Mac evicted him on Jan. 9, 2013.
Brad German, a spokesman for Freddie Mac, said the corporation doesn’t comment on cases involving pending litigation.
“I can’t really discuss too much of the history of his situation,” German said. “But he’s alleged wrongful foreclosure in some previous litigation that was dismissed. But he has re-filed a suit.”
Struggles with the VA
Rather than live in a homeless shelter, which would not accept his dog, he chose to stay in his minivan. His efforts to find an apartment through the Veterans Administration hit a wall.
“They said they were going to try and find me some housing. I drove to East Point, and when I got there they said they didn’t have any housing,” he said. “I asked ‘Why did you make me drive all the way from Marietta to East Point when you could have told me that over the phone?’ And she said, ‘Oh, I didn’t want to but my supervisor told me to do it.’”
Chambers said he was also rejected space in the Towers at Dorsey Manor, a downtown Marietta senior-living complex run by Marietta Housing Authority in partnership with a private management firm, which cited his eviction by Freddie Mac as a blemish on his credit that could not be overcome.
“Managers are concerned about treating everyone alike,” said Ray Buday, director of the Housing Authority.
Buday said Friday he was hopeful he could find Chambers a permanent apartment using special vouchers for homeless veterans. He said the city has 90 such vouchers but there may only be a few that are still available. If not, the veteran has to go on a waiting list.
“We had vouchers for people just like him, homeless veterans,” said Buday. “Last I heard, there may be a few slots left. We might be able to help him. You can imagine what it’s like dealing with the VA, what it’s like for him trying to go down there and trying to penetrate the bureaucracy down there. We have people that can help him go through whatever red tape they have, who can put him in touch with a real human being.”
A changed life
Chambers is quick to point out that he wasn’t looking for sympathy and didn’t mind living in his car until his string of bad luck had run its course. He did not contact the MDJ or ask the paper to write a story about his plight. An attorney who worked previously on his case called the paper Tuesday and said she knew of a local veteran who had spent the night in his car in record-cold temperatures and asked if there was anything the paper could do to help.
“I’m just the kind of person, I have to lick my wounds, I have to have my quiet time, before I can make my comeback,” Chambers said. “I’m a very emotional person so I just crawled off in my car and licked my wounds. I never doubted I would make a comeback.”
And that’s exactly what he seems poised to do.
“This has changed my life. I’m no longer focused on me or my career but on other people. That’s what it’s all about. That’s what I’ve learned through all of this, this publicity, and meeting all these wonderful people,” Chambers said. “I feel really good about it. I feel like I have an aim now.”
Where he once saw only evil, now he sees good.
“It’s like Jesus said, when asked if he had any other commandments, if he had one more, he said ‘love everybody the way you love me.’ It’s all making sense to me now. Basically, I was saying my goodness the world is so corrupt, see all this stuff going on with corporate greed, and now, all these wonderful, beautiful people coming out of the woodwork, and I’m saying, my God, we really do have a beautiful America, we do have beautiful people, I just hadn’t realized it till now.”
Where he once felt cynical, now he feels optimistic.
“I was getting into a bitter state but it’s a whole new world out there and I have a new life because of this,” he said. “Just to have found one person in this world like all of the ones I’ve run into so far would have been enough to change my outlook. And here I’ve found more than a hundred.”
Want to help?
JRC Home Fund Inc., a nonprofit, has been set up to receive donations for John Chambers, a local Vietnam veteran who is fighting a legal battle against mortgage giant Freddie Mac, which left him homeless more than a year ago and living out of his minivan at a Wal-Mart parking lot.
Donations may be mailed to:
196 Freyer Drive NE, Marietta, GA 30060
c/o Melody Unger with Keller Williams Realty
How many homeless veterans are there?
Although flawless counts are impossible to come by — the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that 57,849 veterans are homeless on any given night. Over the course of a year, approximately twice that many experience homelessness. Only 7 percent of the general population can claim veteran status, but nearly 13 percent of the homeless adult population are veterans.
Read Leo Hohmann's original story on John Chambers here.