From left, Raul DeLerme (Howard County Deputy Chief Administrative Officer), Mark Elliott (JPMorgan Chase), Anthony Woods (Maryland Secretary of Veterans Affairs), Margi Kirst (Operation Homefront), Ellen Finnerty Myers (The Kahlert Foundation), Greg Kahlert (The Kahlert Foundation) and Beverly White-Seals (Community Foundation of Howard County) celebrate the expansion of transition housing for veterans in Columbia. (TBM / George Berkheimer)

Five military families transitioning to civilian life can live locally in an apartment for up to a year without paying for rent or utilities, under a program expanded to Columbia by Operation Homefront.

The organization, which provides services to military families and post-9/11 wounded, ill or injured veterans, expanded its transitional housing (apartments) program to Columbia in September. The program will place the families in Vista Wilde Apartments while they build a foundation for their future.

The expansion was the result of a collaboration between Operation Homefront, the Community Foundation of Howard County, the Kahlert Foundation, and JPMorgan Chase, and is open to veterans who have been honorably discharged within the past four years.

Operation Homefront’s transitional apartment housing program began with two apartments in July 2021 and now comprises 10 units. Since inception, it has housed 24 individuals from 13 families, defraying nearly $112,000 in rent and utility costs for them.

“This is our pilot program in Maryland for transitional housing apartments,” said Margi Krist, Chief Revenue Officer for Operation Homefront.

The organization also operates a transitional housing village at Urbana Green, in Frederick County, and has helped more than 680 families acquire the deed to their own homes mortgage-free since 2012 though its national Permanent Homes for Veterans program.

Safety net

 Transitioning military families face formidable obstacles, Krist said, including unaffordable housing and the rising cost of groceries.

“The economy is improving and jobs are there, but that does not mean someone transitioning out of service is going to land safely and thrive,” she said. “The average family transitioning out of the service has an average of $44,000 in credit card debt and only $10,000 to $12,000 in savings.”

Participants also receive access to employment as well as financial counselor services through Operation Homefront’s critical financial systems program.

“It’s hard to achieve stability and chart a path to long-term success when you’re worried about putting a roof over your head,” Krist said.

Dedicated partners

The Kahlert Foundation of Sykesville began partnering with Operation Homefront in 2014 and has contributed more than $1.2 million to its programs.

“The turning point was when we granted rent-free housing for three wounded, ill and injured warrior families in the Village at Gaithersburg in 2019,” said Ellen Finnerty-Myers, the Kahlert Foundation’s executive director. “We wanted to know what we could do closer to home, and knew that Beverly White-Seals was the person to approach.”

White-Seals, president and CEO of the Columbia Foundation, found the ideal location and partners.

“It took less than six months to get to this point, which is an incredible speed to bring these services to Howard County,” Finnerty-Myers said.

Raoul DeLerme, Howard County’s deputy chief administrative officer, said more than 20,000 veterans and active duty members call Howard County home.

“We have community leaders who are eager to partner with these families with accessing county resources, the community, other housing needs, jobs, health care services, and education,” he said.

Mark Elliott, managing director and global head of Military and Veterans Affairs for JPMorgan Chase, said his organization has given away nearly 1,100 homes to service members over the past decade, and partnered with Operation Homefront on 650 of those homes.

“For us, it’s also about making sure service members and their family members have employment,” Elliott said. “If they want to run a business, we make sure they have access to capital and the knowledge about starting and running that business.”

A new JPMorgan Chase initiative called the Military Spouse Entrepreneurship Summit provides military spouses with access to JPMorgan Chase bankers at no cost to help them learn and grow their businesses, he added.

“Other partners who help us do things with housing include Home Depot, who will do home repairs to bring homes up to standard, and other organizations that can do home renovations like widening doors and making other adjustments to accommodate injured service members for (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance,” Elliott said.

A step up

Austin Gilley, who was discharged from the U.S. Navy in August, said his family was able to find housing in Operation Homefront’s Urbana Green village. He recently found employment as a network engineer.

“That was a quick transition,” he said. “It means the world to my family because we’re building our savings and reducing our debt.”

The Gilley family plans to purchase a home in the Frederick County area after the program, and is taking advantage of an educational program offered by Operation Homefront that teaches the basics of homeownership, Gilley said. “We were able to get a step up and be relieved of the stress and financial burden of transitioning.”

Operation Homefront receives hundreds of applications of housing each year, and social workers vet all of the applications to recommend the most deserving applicants, Krist said.

“Our mission is to build strong, stable and secure military families,” she said. “We want military families who serve our nation to thrive and not struggle to get by in the communities they have worked so hard to protect.”