TUCKERTON — Jay Smith became homeless earlier this year when the 30-year-old recreational vehicle where he lived for years finally broke down.
"It was so run down that there was nothing else to do but junk it," he says. "So I've been staying here and there ever since."
The 57-year-old, disabled Vietnam War-era veteran is currently staying at the Hammonton home of his daughter's boyfriend.
"It's not too bad," said Smith, who has worked various jobs over the years but has been unable to retain employment due to the leg injuries he suffered while training to go to war. "What you miss the most, being homeless, is a place to call your own. You know, a place to keep your stuff. I don't have very many things, but it would be nice to have somewhere to put what I do have."
Smith could soon have a place to keep his belongings, because he is expected to be the first resident of Tucker's Walk, a low-cost residential housing complex for veterans on Main Street, across from the Grapevine Restaurant. A ceremonial groundbreaking for the project was held Tuesday.
"This will be the first permanent housing complex in the state to be built solely for veterans," said Kellie Spawton, of Home Quest Inc., a subsidiary of the Egg Harbor Township-based Community Quest, Inc., which also recently became involved in rehabilitating the 202-unit veterans housing complex Veterans Point in Somers Point.
The $3.5 million Tucker's Walk will be nearly 20,000-square feet and will feature 24 fully furnished one-bedroom units and a 10,000-square-foot common area.
"There are 6,500 homeless vets in New Jersey, and only 200 transitional beds. This is an unacceptable situation that we started working five or six years ago to help fight," said Spawton. "This will not be a ‘hand out' for those veterans. It will be a ‘hand up.'"
Local leaders in attendance welcomed Tucker's Walk with ceremonial shovels in hand.
"Being a fellow veteran, I applaud and welcome this project, because there is a definite need out there," Tuckerton Borough Council President George "Buck" Evans said. "This will help the veterans from all over Atlantic, Ocean and Burlington counties who really need our support."
"Even though it's not in our town, we in Little Egg Harbor support this 100 percent," Little Egg Harbor Township Deputy Mayor Art Midgley said. "This will go a long way and be a ‘thank you' to our veterans for all their service."
But even though ground has now been broken for the project, twice, and politicians are on board, Tucker's Walk still has some hurdles to clear before it becomes a reality.
Tuckerton Borough Councilman James Edwards said that the project has yet to receive all of the construction and site plans approvals it needs to move forward.
"We completely support this project and will continue to do so," he said. "But it's more than just getting a few signatures. There are some applications that haven't even been submitted yet."
Kerrie Kelly, senior vice president of finance and program expansion with Community Quest, Inc., acknowledged that the project still needs some approvals, but said she is optimistic that would happen by next week.
The group held a previous groundbreaking at the site, but Kelly said the project hit delays when Community Quest had trouble obtaining government funding for Tucker's Walk.
"Our efforts to get grant money just weren't working. Not only wasn't it working, it wasn't effective at all," Kelly said. "So we had to scratch our plans and go out in search for private funding."
Kelly said plans for the project fluctuated during that time from Tucker's Walk having anywhere from 12 to 48 units before planners finally agreed to construct 24-units.
All the papers for the permits is complete, she said. "It's just a matter of getting our engineer to sign off on them and sending them back over to the town."
Councilwoman Doris Mathisen, who chairs the borough's administration and regulation committee, said she doesn't foresee any major issues that would prevent the project from being approved.
"It seems like they're working with us," she said. "I think it's just going to be a matter of working out the kinks."
The $3.5 million construction of Tucker's Walk is being privately funded by the Atlantic County-based Bishop World Wide, Spawton said, but Home Quest is still trying to raise the funds needed to furnish the complex.
"We still need the furniture to put in the housing, which is why we need donations so much," Spawton said. "But if we can get everything done, we'd love to cut the ribbon on 11/11/11."
Smith said that he has his fingers crossed.
"It's definitely tough to ask for help, especially when you want to work but can't. For this to come along is truly a blessing for me," he said. "I can't wait to sit on the couch in my own living room for the first time in years."
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