Meet Wendy Brown. Brown has spent a number of years managing tax credit properties in Wake, Durham, Johnston, and Harnett counties. Like many of our parents, Brown’s father and uncles served in military service, including wartime engagements, and returned to their communities with challenges that she didn’t fully understand.
Over the last few years, however, Wendy has realized how many of the area’s homeless are veterans, and how many of them have come back from service to much less than they had when they left. “I assumed that when veterans came back from service, they came back to benefits that helped them transition back into civilian life,” says Brown. “I was shocked to find out how wrong I was.”
As a property manager, Brown was well versed in HUD housing vouchers and the system of subsidized housing for the poor, but became increasingly concerned about the kinds of challenges that veterans faced when they were returning to civilian life. Struggling with emotional issues, credit issues, and sometimes even substance abuse issues, a lot of veterans are not able to cope with the difficulties of finding a job in a world where employers don’t recognize their military service as work experience. As a result, many of them end up on the street or in homeless shelters.
“I knew I had to use my background and knowledge to help these poor men and their families get off the street and start supporting themselves,” Brown explains. “It was like their life stopped and stood still while they were gone and then they came home to broken families and starting over was just too hard. They are so trainable. They just need a hand to get back on their feet.”
Brown was working for the Kinton family, managing their property on Sunset Drive, when she came up with her vision for Heroes United NC. Developing transitional housing for veterans began by convincing the Kinton family to dedicate their Sunset Drive property to housing veterans. As a former military family, the Kintons were happy to support Brown in her quest to acquire properties for her project.
Since then, Brown has transformed that first property into Veterans Station – home to a number of veterans who are able to pay rent and support themselves. She has also acquired another property – a four-plex – just around the corner, that she has named Veterans Station 2, and two rental properties that she is turning into transitional housing for veterans who are in the process of getting on their feet.
Veterans Station is a large property that includes a number of studio apartments, as well as office space and plenty of room for a food pantry, a clothes closet, and storage. It also has a nice big space that Brown is turning into a recreational room, with a large screen TV, some comfortable furniture, a table for playing cards, and a pool table and fussball table. The property also has a large kitchen space, which she is developing into a full-service kitchen where the residents can make meals together or learn how to cook, etc. Any residents in the properties Brown manages can take advantage of the services and recreational space at Veterans Station. “We are building a community here, of people who support each other and keep each other motivated to become self-sufficient. Anything we can do to help them have a little fun and get to know each other while they are learning how to take care of themselves is a benefit.”
Brown is also working hard to collect toiletries, linens, clothing, furniture, kitchen supplies, and food to have on hand for the veterans who need help establishing themselves in a home or apartment. “I’ll take just about anything as long as it is clean and useful,” says Brown. “The needs of these men and their families are great, but simple. Most of them come in with just the clothes on their back, so they need practically everything it takes to get an apartment furnished and stocked.”
Although Brown has just four properties that are officially under the Heroes United umbrella, she places veterans in properties all over the area, working with landlords to get properties up to code so that the vets can use their HUD vouchers to pay the rent. Brown pays the rent, and then the veterans pay her, so landlords never have to worry about missed payments or having to wait until government assistance arrives to subsidize rent payments. She finds that her clients are hard-working and very clean, which helps win over landlords as she constantly looks for additional options for housing.
The process of getting a homeless veteran off the streets is a lengthy one. The first priority is finding a room for them, and then the hard work of determining what benefits they are qualified for begins. It can take six months to a year for a homeless vet to become functional in terms of living, working, and being self-supporting. Brown’s nonprofit works with agencies to find the funds that are needed to help pay for rent and food while clients wait for government benefits to kick in. She has established relationships with many service organizations that help with rent, utilities, food, and job training for people who are in crisis, but finding rooms for her clients is still the most challenging and time-consuming facet of her work.
Brown is a one-woman whirling dervish. Although Heroes United NC has a board of directors of dedicated volunteers who help her with logistics and fund-raising, Brown single-handedly handles the day-to-day affairs, which can be as diverse as picking up furniture, cleaning kitchens, working with agency personal to secure funds, filling out pages of paperwork to get benefits released for a client, creating a case plan for a client that includes securing counseling, vocational training, and job placement, and picking up a veteran from under an overpass and finding him a place to live. “I don’t have a husband or kids, so I can dedicate my life to this. These men are like my kids. There is nothing more rewarding than taking a human being out of a life of despair, giving them a couple of months of assistance, and watching them transform into a responsible, proud, self-supporting member of society. It truly inspires me and when things get crazy and the average person risks burning out, I secure another property or rescue another veteran, and it energizes me all over again!”
Brown can’t say enough about the reception she has received in Fuquay-Varina since she opened Veterans Station. “I just love Fuquay-Varina!” Brown exclaims. “The support here has been unbelievable! The vets don’t want to leave once they get here. Many don’t have transportation, but everything they need is here, so they just stay once they get here.” Many local civic groups are stepping up to adopt specific projects and volunteer in a variety of ways. Brown says the biggest need other than more housing is manpower. Chores like answering the phones, office work, landscaping, carpentry projects, painting & cleaning, and organizing clothes, food, and other items at Veterans Station are among the things that Brown needs help with.
Brown is opening her two transitional homes – one in early September and one in early October. These homes need furniture, linens, and kitchen items, as well as general cleaning and painting. Volunteers and cash donations are in great demand as Heroes United continues to expand its mission.
Brown’s vision for the future is just as ambitious as her recent work has been. She is constantly looking for more landlords and more rental properties that are open to working with her to place her homeless veterans. Ultimately, she would like to have 500 units. Currently, there are 8,000 homeless veterans in North Carolina, and 500-700 of them are in Cary, Holly Springs, Fuquay-Varina, and Angier. If she could locate housing for those veterans, she will feel like she has accomplished her goals. “Once I accomplish that, I’ll jump over to Durham or Johnston counties and start doing the same thing there! “
Anyone interested in donating items or volunteering their time and/or expertise can contact Wendy at the Heroes United of NC office, which is located at 119 S. Fuquay Ave next to the DMV office or by calling her at (919) 917-3761.