The 30-second commercial begins with a man strolling through a park, an alley, and then downtown, telling a story as he goes.
“As a Marine, I learned resiliency,” the man says. “But when I lost my job, my home, and was living out of my car, I felt like a shadow of that person.”
Abilenians watching the Rocket Mortgage commercial might lean in closer to the TV to get a better look when they recognize Sears Park, a downtown alley, or the Alexander Building. And many will recognize John Meier, a chiseled Marine with the looks and voice of a natural for television.
As Meier walks, superimposed shadows begin to appear. First, the shadow of a homeless man lying on a park bench begins to rise. Then, a shadow appears by a car. In 2014, Meier was that man-a shadow of himself–after he and his family were evicted from their apartment. His wife and children moved in with relatives and Meier lived in his car. Overnight, he became a homeless veteran.
The commercial highlights Rocket Mortgage’s partnership with Built for Zero, a nationwide movement to end homelessness. Today, Meier, 45, works specifically with veterans as program manager for Supportive Services for Veteran Families, which operates through the West Central Texas Council of Governments. But he has a heart for anyone who is homeless.
For part of 2014, Meier was one of Abilene’s most vulnerable neighbors–a steep drop from his previous life as a Wylie High School student, McMurry University graduate, teacher, and member of the United States Marine Corps. His life experiences have taught Meier that things can change quickly and that anyone can go from “professional” status to “homeless” status in the blink of an eye.
HERO TO HOMELESS
His story began like many Americans. Born in Monroe, Louisiana, in 1976, Meier moved with his family to Abilene when he was three years old. He attended Wylie schools but then began having troubles at home, compiling some “self-inflicted wounds” as he put it.
“I was a bit of a troubled youth,” Meier acknowledged.
He moved out of the family home and got his own place, working full time to pay for rent, utilities, food, and other essentials. On his seventeenth birthday, Meier dropped out of high school and got his high school equivalency diploma. He then enrolled at Cisco College, taking classes at night while working full time. He was a good student and realized he wanted a college degree but didn’t have the means to pay for it with his minimum wage job. So he joined the Marines.
Meier was aware of the issues that led him to leave home, drop out of high school, and attempt to make it on his own. The discipline, training, and prestige of the Marine Corps were all a draw for him.
In his four-year Marine career, Meier saw much of the country, from San Diego to Arizona to North Carolina. He learned to input data and to schedule large-scale maneuvers for fellow Marines, including travel and financial arrangements. A “travel agent” is his term for that part of his stint, but he learned valuable skills that still serve him today.
After the Marines, Meier earned a bachelor’s degree from McMurry, graduating in May 2001.
“It was the first and only time I’ve walked across a stage,” he said.
Meier earned a teaching certificate after graduation and taught at Arlington High School for six years. He was married and had three children. The family moved back to Abilene and Meier taught math at Madison Middle School for a year.
That was followed by more moves, a divorce, remarriage, and eventual settling in Abilene, where Meier got a night job with a janitorial crew at Hardin-Simmons University. Homelessness would soon follow.
In 2014, the family got behind on the rent and were evicted. Meier’s wife and children moved in with relatives and Meier made a home in his car, sleeping “wherever I could park that I felt safe.”
And then, things began to look up when Meier went to the local Veterans Administration clinic and a nurse asked about his living conditions. He told her he was living in his car and the nurse got him connected with a VA social worker.
After getting tied into veterans benefits, Meier applied for a job with the West Central Texas Council of Governments Area Agency on Aging. But when he interviewed, he learned about an opening in another department that would allow him to work with veterans. He was too ashamed to mention that he was receiving veterans benefits–the same benefits he would be helping other veterans to get.
But he got past that embarrassment and accepted the job, beginning as a case manager working with veterans and their families. He continued to advance to the position he holds today, as program manager for Supportive Services for Veteran Families.
“I came into this field by personal experience,” Meier said, “so I look at every homeless veteran and think, ‘That’s me.’”
A HELPING HAND
Meier couldn’t believe his good fortune when he landed the job working with veterans. He was now helping people who were facing the same circumstances he once faced–the circumstances that pushed him into homelessness and the accompanying sense of being a shadow of himself.
“To me,” Meier said, “I was seeing a reflection of myself.”
And that is why Meier is perfect for the job. He hasn’t forgotten that just seven years ago, he was a homeless veteran himself. He acknowledges his role in his troubled youth, but also points to circumstances like becoming addicted to pain medications after an injury. All that is behind Meier now, and he is happy to be helping other veterans facing many of the problems he faced.
The public relations team for Rocket Mortgage recognized in Meier the perfect person and perfect story to spread the message that the company is proud to be a lead partner of Built for Zero and that it is committed to spreading Built for Zero’s message that ending homelessness is possible if everyone rallies together with a shared purpose.
“Rocket Mortgage chose to feature John Meier’s story because it’s a compelling example of how one individual’s resilience, along with the support of a community, can lead to great things,” a Rocket Mortgage spokesperson said. “Despite experiencing homelessness himself, John is now one of the key leaders in Abilene that helped drive the community’s progress toward Functional Zero for both veteran and chronic homelessness.”
Making the commercial is fun for Meier to talk about, but he would much rather tell the story of Abilene achieving “functional zero homelessness” status for veterans and for the population at large.
The commercial was filmed in Abilene the last week in October and aired during football games beginning Thanksgiving Day. Film crews and advisers came to Abilene from Dallas, Los Angeles, and Detroit, company headquarters of Rocket Mortgage. The filming, employing veterans as extras, was done from a Wednesday through Saturday evening. Sears Park on Ambler Avenue was rented for a day. The Abilene Police Department marked off downtown streets.
Special effects were added in a makeshift studio set up in a rented barn near Clyde. Leading that part of the production was the man who created the special effects for the Avenger movies.
“It was amazing to watch the stuff they did,” Meier said.
But attaining “functional zero” status is an even more amazing feat for a community and Meier is proud to be a part of that team. “Functional zero” is an official term, with specific standards, to define the homeless rate in a community. Abilene attained the “functional zero” homelessness ranking for veterans, in conjunction with Built for Zero, in early 2019, followed by chronic “functional zero” later that year.
Meier is quick to point out that achieving that goal is a team effort, even if just one person is featured in a commercial. Several local entities work toward the goal, such as the West Texas Homeless Network, which is a part of the Texas Homeless Network, the Community Foundation of Abilene, the United Way, and others. Meier is on the board or has been a board member for numerous agencies dedicated to ending homelessness.
Meier is friends with Rosten Callarman, a former housing navigator for Abilene Hope Haven and current director of Interested Citizens of Abilene North (ICAN). He and Meier have worked together for several years to end homelessness. Callarman knows the depth of Meier’s commitment.
“John has dedicated his life to the goal of ending not just veteran homelessness, but all homelessness,” Callarman said. “John believes that the health of a community is best measured by the way that we care for our most vulnerable neighbors.”
Meier wears a wrist band with the words, “Product of Grace” printed on it. That is not just a slogan for Meier, it is a reflection of his belief that God’s grace lies at the heart of the transformation he has seen in his own life. A part of that transformation came when he got connected to a social worker with the Veterans Administration and began talking about the shame that homelessness brings to a person.
“I got to see the light that God was showing on the other side,” he said.
Today, Meier is helping other veterans see that light, too. Even though Abilene has reached “functional zero” for veterans homelessness, Meier understands the reality that homelessness is a fluid situation. Just because the city has reached its goal doesn’t guarantee it will stay there. Or, as Meier put it, “There’s somebody becoming homeless every day.”
By Loretta Fulton
Photography By Shayli Anne Photography