St. Louis Beacon: Veteran opens his heart — and his home — to homeless vets

Originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon

Written by: Mary Delach Leonard

Posted 2:29 p.m. Mon., Jan. 26 – In Hence Forland’s age-battered brick house on Windsor Place, the rules are spelled out for homeless veterans who give up life on the streets of St. Louis for a warm and secure rent-free room under his dry roof.

Friendly reminders are posted on the kitchen and bathroom walls:

Cover food when using the microwave.

When emptying trash from YOUR room, check and empty kitchen trash. Thank you.

Do not wash dishes in the bathtub.

Forland enforces other rules, as well — from his simple “respect each other” to no drugs or weapons, no cooking or smoking in the bedrooms. And everyone chips in on utilities.

“Everybody needs some kind of structure and neatness to get back on track in their lives,” said Forland, 57, who wears a hat that says Desert Storm Veteran and speaks highly of what he learned from Uncle Sam during his own service in the Army.

In a sense, Forland is back on active duty, rounding up homeless veterans to live for a time in his three upstairs bedrooms, while they “get back on track.”

“Most of us are over 50. We joined during the Vietnam era and Desert Storm,” Forland said. “I thought it was time for me to step out here and help in the community and help whoever needs help.”

Ready for drywall

Forland said he bought the house, which is more than a century old, about 20 years ago and used it for storage until 2007 when he realized it could provide shelter for the homeless veterans he was accustomed to seeing in the neighborhood. He paid for a new roof, bought a new furnace and began to scavenge for donated furnishings.

For the kitchen he found a wooden table and chairs, an old refrigerator that he scrubbed clean and a collection of mismatched dishes that are stacked neatly on a cupboard shelf. In the front room, where he sleeps, his shoes are lined up on a built-in bookshelf, ready to march. Even the cellar is orderly, though filled with boxes and jars of screws and fixtures and wooden trim he keeps at hand because there is no hardware store nearby.

Amid the home’s chaos of disrepair — bare light bulbs hang from the ceilings and walls that haven’t seen paint in decades — Forland has restored a sense of order.

Forland, who said he retired from the Army as a sergeant, not only writes the rules for the house but leads by example.

“I’ve got to let them know I’m a very neat and tidy person because Uncle Sam taught me that way,” Forland said.

HGTV contest

Hence Forland’s Windsor Transitional Home is one of eight community veterans homes chosen by HGTV to compete for a $40,000 remodel in the cable channel’s national Change America campaign. Local affiliates of Rebuilding Together, a national volunteer organization, will coordinate work on the two winning projects, which will be filmed and broadcast by HGTV. The cities receiving the most online votes will be announced on March 15.

For voting information, click here  .

Votes are limited to one per computer each day until March 2, 2009.

For general information, click here  .

Forland’s house, now known as the Windsor Transitional Home, is one of eight community veterans homes competing for remodeling funds in HGTV’s “Change the World” campaign. If it wins the most online votes, the local volunteer organization Rebuilding Together-St. Louis will get $40,000 to make repairs on the home. 

Lynne Rajani, executive director of Rebuilding Together-St. Louis, said that regardless of the contest’s outcome, the project has already been guaranteed $5,000 from HGTV and that local trade unions have stepped forward to volunteer their time and expertise with repairs.

“When you look at Mr. Forland, the neat thing is he has already put a lot of his own money and his own time into this house,” Rajani said. “And this is not just for him — it’s for the community, as well.”

“I have found my purpose.”

Since the contest began, Forland’s house has been featured on St. Louis news shows and blogs, but he has no idea how the voting is going. While ushering a reporter on a tour of the house, he points out his ideas for making the space not just livable, but homey — so that his residents might eventually entertain their family members for, say, holiday dinners.

For now, though, Forland’s goals are more simple. His wish list has three needs: updated electrical wiring and plumbing and repairs to the back porch.

Willie Brown

Willie Brown, 58, who lives at the house, was quick to point out that he didn’t have to be homeless.

“Sometimes, I just wanted to be away from people,” he said.

Brown said he served with the Army Rangers in Vietnam, an experience that left him battling post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I was 19, and I saw friends die,” Brown said, softly, as he stood before the mantel of a fireplace in his room where he has arranged religious pictures and a rosary — and a Civil War history book.

Asked about the book, Brown said, “You know, more soldiers were killed in that war than any other.”

Brown said that he participates in VA therapy sessions for his PTSD, but he sometimes skips them because he doesn’t want to talk about war. He said he and Forland just clicked.

“We understand each other more than most people, and we get along. We’re like brothers in a way,” he said. “He reminds me of my first sergeant.”

The house is within walking distance of John Cochran VA Medical Center, where Forland used to work. During his 26 years of working for the VA, Forland said he became experienced at helping veterans with their paperwork. He also directs them to community programs where they can find additional assistance.

“But it’s up to that individual to keep going forward in life,” Forland said. “We all get off track sometimes. My thing is I know I’m doing right. I know I have my ups and downs, and I’m working on a lot of them.”

Angela Morris, Forland’s former wife, lives in the house next door and has watched his vision take shape.

“My first reaction was, ‘You don’t know these people. They’re complete strangers and you are inviting strangers into your home. Are you sure you want to do this?’ ” Morris said. “And he said ‘Yes, I have found my purpose. I think this is what I want to do with my life.’ He has always had a heart for the veterans. He has seen so many of them walking, without any purpose in their lives.”

A Grass-Roots Effort

Some of the homeless veterans Forland helps are old enough to qualify for senior citizen programs, he said. They are an aging band of brothers now, needing to come in off the street in the winter of their lives.

Walter Lee Harris, 63, who said he served in the Army in Vietnam, lived with Forland for a time because his older brother was homeless, too, and needed a place to stay.

“It was cold,” Harris put it simply. “We found him [Forland], and we came in.”


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