With paintings on every wall, driftwood sculptures on tables, plush area rugs underfoot and natural night casting patterns on his bedspread, Marcus Smith’s downtown Longview apartment feels like an inviting, urban loft.
It’s not the apartment you’d expect for a formerly homeless veteran.
“This is like a miracle here for me,” Smith, 66, told U.S. Sen. Patty Murray as she toured the Stratford Arms building Tuesday morning. “I’ve never had it this good in my life. It’s like a sanctuary. I don’t have to worry.”
Murray (D-Wash.), a longtime advocate for veterans, was instrumental in landing $490,000 in federal money toward the first phase of renovating the 1925-era brick building at 1312 Hemlock St. into 20 apartments for homeless veterans. Performed by the Longview Housing Authority, which owns the historic four-story building, the $975,000, two-year renovation included fire safety improvements, adding a lobby and an elevator, installing a solar hot water system, remodeling some of the apartments, making the building more wheelchair accessible and reinforcing the roof to withstand earthquakes.
A second phase of renovations costing another $1 million will begin in September. That work will include replacing windows, plumbing and sewer lines, adding a laundry room, upgrading the fire escape, installing ventilation systems and completing electrical and room finishes.
In January, Smith and other veterans began moving into the third and fourth floor’s studio apartments, which each have a living area that doubles as a bedroom, a kitchen with an eating area and a bathroom. On the second floor are the veterans’ case managers’ offices. (Another agency, the Family Finance Resource Center, is on the ground floor.)
Veterans such as Smith are welcome to live in the apartments permanently. Sixteen of the 20 units have project-based vouchers, which means the tenant pays 30 percent of his income toward rent and utilities.
“If it’s a homeless veteran with zero income, 30 percent of zero is zero,” said Jon Dieter, director of community services for the Longview Housing Authority.
Four units don’t have subsidies and are rented to homeless veterans who are now working or receive Veterans Affairs benefits. Many of the veterans receive free case management, but it’s not a requirement. If they’re good tenants, “they can live there indefinitely with no other services required,” Dieter said.
The apartment is a welcome change after spending half his life homeless, said Smith, who grew up in Longview and whose dad was an art teacher.
“I was kind of chased out of my house when I was 16,” he said.
Smith stayed at the juvenile detention center awhile, then lived with a foster family his senior year of high school. Unsure of what to do with his life, Smith hitchhiked up and down the West Coast before joining the Army in November 1965. He served for three years, working in German hospitals to rehabilitate wounded soldiers.
After that, he moved to California and started a landscaping business. He married and had three children. Then his back gave out, his wife divorced him, he lost his business and then fell further and further behind on child support.
For the next 20 to 30 years, Smith was homeless. He lived by a creek for awhile. He migrated back up the coast and crashed with his dad, then his mom, then at Community House on Broadway in Longview. He lived with a woman, and after they fought, he camped by the Cowlitz River.
Last November, he met a fellow veteran who told him he could get help through the Veterans of Foreign Wars organization. Once hooked up with the VFW, Smith began receiving $340 a month in VA benefits.
“So many veterans don’t know about any benefits they’re eligible for and which they certainly deserve as a veteran,” Dieter said.
At the same time, Smith heard about the Longview Housing Authority’s programs to house veterans — the Veterans Integration Program. That very night, Smith had a bed in a 33rd Avenue house used for veterans’ transitional housing. He took a class on being a good renter and then got a break on his back child support through Lower Columbia CAP’s “Building Assets for Fathers” program.
And now Smith has his own place, artfully furnished with his father’s paintings, and items he picked up at thrift stores. He volunteers for the housing authority’s veterans programs, driving the Disabled American Veterans van to Vancouver.
Tuesday, as Sen. Murray admired at photographs of Smith’s grown children — one daughter has a master’s degree, another graduated from Reed College, and his son is on a fishing boat in Alaska, Smith said, “I understand that you seeded this program. Thank you very much.”
“I’m glad it’s yours, and I’m glad you’re happy,” Murray replied.
In an apartment upstairs outfitted with a TV, loveseat and twin-sized brass bed, Murray met George Brokaw, who served in the Army from 1975 to 1977.
“I went in as a dysfunctional kid and came out as a dysfunctional man,” said Brokaw, 56, who was homeless as a kid in Duluth, Minn.
In the military, Brokaw learned to do drugs, he said, saying they were easier to get than cigarettes. For the next 20 years, he struggled with addiction and bipolar disorder. When he arrived in Longview a year and a half ago and took shelter at Community House, he’d just quit his job and was planning to kill himself.
Then he met the housing authority’s veterans case manager, David Pennington, who is a Marine Corps veteran. It was the lifeline Brokaw desperately needed.
Today he has housing, the support of other veterans and a VA disability check.
“I’ve actually got friends that actually care,” Brokaw said. “You can hear us laughing. We’re not used to laughter.”
He volunteers driving other veterans in the program and is in Goodwill’s employment training program for seniors, working 20 hours a week for Habitat for Humanity.
“There’s no way I could repay what they’ve done for me, so anytime they ask, I do,” he said. “It’s been the best ever I’ve felt at home.”