United States Navy and Vietnam War veteran Clarence Buxton has seen a lot in his life.
The 72-year-old patrolled the waters between Vietnam and Hawaii, made a career out of welding and spent most of his golden years volunteering at the veterans clinic. He dealt with extreme bouts of post-traumatic stress disorder and the bad habits that formed alongside them. He also recovered from these vices and found solace in his church family in Slidell.
But perhaps one of the most significant things Buxton said he saw was the day the house he calls home finally became his grace at East St. Tammany Habitat for Humanity.
“Through the Lord to me it was a blessing,” he said.
Buxton was living in New Orleans East and volunteering at the clinic when he came across a brochure from the organization. He lived in a small apartment at the time, struggling with the confined space and outside noises affecting his PTSD.
“I was paranoid and I smoked and drank a lot, and I prayed and prayed,” he said. “I don’t like being locked up.”
He decided to take a second look at the brochure and did his life-changing thing at East St. Tammany Habitat for Humanity. He applied for a home, was approved, and began the process that ultimately led to home ownership in 2019.
Buxton is the most recent example of a veteran who directly benefited from Habitat’s Veterans Build program. The effort gives veterans in need of housing the gift of home ownership through volunteer work and funds from one of the organization’s upcoming flagship events: the Louisiana Veterans Festival.
Back after a long hiatus thanks to COVID-19, the festival returns this year from 3-10 p.m. on May 14 at Heritage Park in Slidell. The event will feature a tribute to veterans, food vendors and musical performances from Bonerama, Cowboy Mouth and Tyler Kitchen & The Right Pieces. A fireworks display will conclude the event at 10 p.m. The event is free for veterans and children under 12. General admission tickets are $15.
“This is a day when we can thank a veteran and also serve those who serve us,” said executive director Kentell Jones, who is an Army veteran herself. “Everyone who walks through that door helps place a veteran in affordable housing. Help us serve those who have served us and this country.
Funds from the event are used to sponsor the Veterans Build program, Jones said, and it usually takes fundraising from two festivals to pay for a house. Since its inception in 2014, the program has enabled four veterans to access home ownership locally.
But the intention is not to give a “helping hand”, she said, but rather a “helping hand”. Once a veteran is approved for a home, the work really begins. Beneficiaries are required to take courses in “financial health”, home buying and maintenance, and put in 250 hours of “sweat ability”. This means that the beneficiaries must help build their own house. New homeowners are also required to pay a mortgage based on their income level.
Buxton put in 300 hours of work on his home, laying the very floor he now walks on every day. He pays his own mortgage directly to the organization and is extremely proud of the house which he says has changed his life.
“I got this house that I prayed and prayed and prayed for, and I’m relaxed and everything and quit smoking and quitting drinking,” he said. “Now I feel so good. I get up in the morning and I could walk around, come back and do some work around the house.
Building veterans, however, offers specific advantages. Veterans don’t have to pay closing costs on their home and benefit from the organization’s standard interest-free mortgage.
“When you’re dealing with a low-income veteran, they have the option of getting a VA loan, but if they’re low-income and don’t meet that credit score qualification, that’s when- where we step in and help,” says Jones.
However, the organization faces new challenges as rising costs affect construction efforts. Add to that the cancellation of festivals in 2020 and 2021 and the setbacks of Hurricane Ida, and Habitat has its plate full of issues to deal with, Jones said. A house typically costs around $100,000 to build and teams of volunteers to do the work, she said. But the rising cost of wood has weighed on the organization with price increases of around 20%. There was also a lack of volunteer labor during the days of the pandemic restrictions and the group was on the back foot.
“Increased lumber and delays, supplies, logistics and lack of volunteers,” Jones said. “Put all of these things together, and it puts a bit of pressure on the affiliate.”
Hurricane Ida also added insult to injury when many of the organization’s 143 homeowners needed their homes repaired after the storm. Habitat, being the lender, must oversee the insurance claims for these homes.
“I have owners who are desperate for repairs,” Jones said, noting that some contractors are still booked six to seven weeks.
However, the group is making slow progress. It has three houses in progress, two of which are fully built and awaiting the new owners to complete their courses.
As for Buxton, life is better than ever, he says. His prayers were answered when he received his home in Slidell, and he spends most of his free time gardening and volunteering at his church and with Habitat. He now helps the group build homes for others so they too can see their dreams come true.
“I set it up well, really well,” he said. “I have my garden, my roses, red roses, white roses, hibiscus. … Thank God for doing this; it’s not me, it’s you.”
For more information about East St. Tammany Habitat for Humanity, to volunteer, or to apply for a house, visit their website at esthfh.org.