Garry Capers is 56 and never owned a home, but that changed Wednesday when he became the first veteran served by Habitat Charlotte’s effort to house struggling vets.
Yet Capers, a Vietnam-era Army vet, says the most moving part of the dedication ceremony was when he was handed a flag by veterans, in full dress uniform, of the nation’s other wars.
“There was a Gulf War veteran on one side and a veteran from World War II on the other, and me in the middle, all of us defenders of this great nation of ours,” said Capers, who was discharged as a private first class.
“It was so powerful to feel that kinship with them.”
Habitat’s “Armed Forces Build” program has made Capers a first-time homeowner after he spent five years living in a Charlotte hotel.
Experts say that’s become common option for veterans and homeless families, whose low-paying jobs don’t afford a chance to save the $1,500 to $2,000 often required for rent and utility deposits needed for apartments and homes.
It’s estimated that 15 percent of Charlotte’s homeless population is made up of veterans, and that number is rising as more return from overseas conflicts.
The number of veterans in Charlotte who have served since Sept. 11, 2001, is expected to double in the next several years, growing by 7,000, according to the Department of Defense.
Charlotte is meeting the challenge with a variety programs like Armed Forces Build, which offers zero percent mortgage rates on new homes to working vets willing to partner on construction.
Bank of America and United Technologies Aerospace Systems provided money for materials and volunteers to help build Capers’ home in west Charlotte, and he is contributing 250 volunteer hours.
Phil Prince of Habitat for Humanity says the program’s many benefits include shaving six months off the normal year-and-a-half process, so veterans get into a home quicker. A half-dozen more veterans are already in line for homes through the program, he said.
“So many returning vets – and vets from past wars – come home with post-traumatic stress and end up with a homeless rate that is inordinately high,” said Prince.
“They’re often in low-wage jobs, too, and banks won’t lend to them. But we will. They’re proud and don’t want to ask for help, but we want to break those barriers down.”
Capers, a South Carolina native, says he had a successful 20-year career as a private contractor doing maintenance for the military. But when his mother had a stroke in 1995, he gave it up and moved back home to Hartsville, S.C.
In the years since, Capers said, he has worked a series of low-paying jobs in the Carolinas, including a stint with the Census Bureau that brought him to Charlotte. He currently contracts out as an independent sales rep, which he says doesn’t offer big pay.
Still, he’s hoping the house is the start of better things. He has enrolled in CPCC with the help of federal grant money and will be working toward a career in preventing cyber crime.
Capers says he’s optimistic, but also feels sense of honor.
“When I saw all those volunteers working on my house, I couldn’t help but see that sense of unity we have in this country,” he said.
“It’s the idea of people coming together to help because they want to help. Then to see the other veterans show up with a flag, that’s a memory that lasts a lifetime.”
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