For veterans, a place to call home

Va. group unveils first of 200 houses it plans to renovate in Baltimore

May 18, 1999|By Jennifer Sullivan | Jennifer Sullivan,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Since returning from Vietnam in 1972, Rommie McKnight has lived through alcoholism, heroin addiction and homelessness.

The former Marine from East Baltimore has bounced from shelters to drug treatment centers to a small studio apartment in East Baltimore. Thanks to a year-old home ownership program for veterans, he received the keys to a home of his own yesterday.

This week, McKnight, 50, and his two children will move into the ivory-colored rowhouse at 1017 N. Castle St. The three-level home is the first created for a Baltimore veteran by the Circle of Friends for American Veterans.

"I'm fortunate and blessed by God," said McKnight, who kicked his drug and alcohol habits two years ago.

At a news conference outside the home yesterday, C.J. La Clair, a spokesman for the Virginia-based veterans support group, said they hope to create 200 similar homes in Baltimore. The group has homebuilding programs throughout the country.

Alexander Avella, president of Amerifirst Mortgage, said McKnight's east-side home was among several dozen recovered through foreclosure, "and instead of selling it back, we donated it." Avella said the mortgage group, based in Hempstead, N.Y., plans to donate five more East Baltimore houses to the veterans program.

"You reach a point where it's not all business," he said. "You can still make money and give back."

To help veterans become homeowners, Circle of Friends for American Veterans is offering low mortgage rates on rehabilitated homes -- McKnight's $500 monthly mortgage payment will be the average.

The group also is giving jobs to veterans, making them part of a team constructing the homes. While McKnight works as a carpenter, Richard Jeffreys, who fought in the Panama invasion, works as a demolition man. Amerifirst Mortgage provides the wages and benefits for the 15 local veterans and contractors.

Jeffreys, who also lives in East Baltimore, said he plans to join the waiting list of 30 interested homeowners. In the meantime, he said he loves his new job gutting homes.

It took more than a year to complete McKnight's house, Jeffreys said.

Once a house is completed, owners are selected based on need, income and employment status. L.B. Walker, a Washington developer and consultant who is volunteering for the project, said veterans and their families are given priority, but anyone who needs a home is invited to apply. Those interested in the program can call 410-747-7800.

Walker said Circle of Friends for American Veterans has secured sites for future homes on Luzerne, Asquith, Francis, Valley and Gorman streets. Work is nearly complete on two houses in McKnight's block, but tenants have not been selected.

Pub Date: 5/18/99

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