Their thought-provoking conversation evoked a stirring, unexpected emotion that eventually led to concerted action.
Five years ago, Steven Esparza showed up at a Home Depot community service event in St. Louis. A district manager with the company for 27 years, he remembers walking around the refurbished home, thanking volunteers for their efforts. But when introduced to the homeowners, including a disabled veteran, what started as light-hearted conversation evolved into something more serious.
Before driving home that afternoon, he sat in his truck, overcome by the veteran’s experience after leaving the military. Tears streamed down his face. He had heard similar stories from other veterans and their spouses at past volunteer events.
For all the vacant and abandoned homes dotted throughout St. Louis, he thought to himself, why can’t the city figure out a way to repurpose them for an increasing homeless veteran population?
In 2016, Esparza co-founded Vision Warriors, a nonprofit that builds and refurbishes homes for housing homeless veterans. Teaming with St. Louis nonprofits like St. Patrick’s Center and Missouri Veterans Endeavor, he said they’ve finally found their footing. Among their largest donors, including the Home Depot Foundation, is the Gary Sinise Foundation, which has provided grant funding for home building projects for the last two years.
Vision Warriors caught their first big break in 2017, with the purchase of an abandoned, two-story duplex on Oriole Avenue, just outside the city. Left disheveled for seven years, Esparza said, “It took us almost six months to get rid of all the trash from inside.”
Built in 1927, workers gutted the property and much of the interior and began remodeling from scratch. “We framed it, drywalled it, insulated it,” he said. New plumbing and electrical were installed. Broken windows replaced. And the exterior and interior were given a fresh coat of paint. “Everything is brand new.”
On Thanksgiving Day last year, its first tenant, Matthew Johnston, moved in.
Before Vision Warriors, Johnston lived in his Jeep. Directionless and divorced, his two young boys living in Indiana with his ex-wife, Esparza, thought he was suicidal. It had been more than a decade since Johnston was medically evacuated from Afghanistan with a traumatic brain injury. Post-traumatic stress disorder followed him at home, he said. The unspeakable memories of combat, making life and death decisions as a door gunner aboard a Black Hawk helicopter haunt him.
Working with Esparza during the six months while he lived in the unit on Oriole Avenue, Johnston said, “He picked me up, dusted me off, and set me back down on the right path.”
Johnston recently moved to Indiana. Working full time at the Home Depot as a tool technician, he’s closer to his boys, a more stable presence in their lives.
“If you’re not a hero for your children, then they’re going to go out and find one. I feel like I know best...I want to be that influence in their life and not somebody else.”
Vision Warriors identify potential tenants with help from Veterans Affairs facilities in St. Louis and recommendations from other veteran-support nonprofits in the area. Said Esparza, “We want to make sure they’re physically and mentally rehabbed. We want to make sure that they’re ready to come out to the world today.”
Veterans fill out an application followed by an interview with several board members before being accepted into a short-term, 30-day lease. “If it’s not going good or they’re not taking care of the home, we’re able to get them out,” Esparza said, who points to a situation like Johnston’s as the other reason why a month-to-month lease is the preferred option for tenants.
Philadelphia native Russell Camp spent 36 years in the military. During the Gulf War, he deployed to Saudi Arabia then Iraq as a fuel truck driver. “It was rough,” he said, “It was really rough.”
“I had a couple of bad explosions when I was in Saudi Arabia that shook my nerves up and my mind.” Other combat experiences he explained contributed to post-traumatic stress disorder.
After completing the Compensated Work Therapy program through the Philadelphia VA, designed to help veterans with a mental health disorder obtain employment, Camp said he couldn’t find job opportunities in the city. He kept submitting applications until a hospital in St. Louis responded, saying they would hire him for a housekeeping position.
Camp arrived in November in a city he knew little about, with few personal belongings and not much in the bank account, save for disability income from the VA. He rented a room at a hotel near the airport, temporary quarters until he could afford an apartment. The following months he described were uneasy — drug addicts came and went at all hours of the night. Hookers prowled the hallways.
Were it not for a referral to Vision Warriors by the St. Louis VA Medical Center in February, Camp said he would have resorted to living in his van.
Camp moved into the second-story unit on Oriole Avenue in February. With furnished rooms and assistance from Vision Warriors, he said has been a stress reliever. In the few months he and Johnston lived next door to each other, Camp said he appreciated the camaraderie that grew out of their hours-long conversations. “He was somebody I could relate to with the military and other issues.”
Esparza said the plan now for Vision Warriors is to build five new homes a year. Already, construction is underway on another property in St. Louis. They plan to expand their work into Chicago in the coming months. “We want to be smart, we want to move fast, but at the same time, we have to be smart of how fast and where.”
For the foreseeable future, Camp said he doesn’t plan on leaving St. Louis. Working at the hospital keeps him busy, his mind occupied. Retirement will come, eventually. Having a stable roof over his head, Camp said, “I’m way better than where I was — way better."