Hillsborough code enforcement officer creates program to help veterans maintain homes

A code enforcement officer rallies help to repair struggling veterans' homes.
Published May 12 2017

TAMPA

Christine Zien-McCombs is a swirling force of nature, a tornado in human form. But instead of destroying things, her mission is to fix them up.

Using her unusual networking talents, Zien-McCombs, a Hillsborough County code enforcement officer who handles hardship cases, has come up with a plan to help local veterans with code violations repair and maintain their homes.

For Zien-McCombs, 54, Operation Code Veteran is personal as well as professional.

Her husband, Jeff McCombs, is a retired Air Force master sergeant who served aboard CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft with the 1st Special Operations Wing. Years of seeing horrible things left him with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"It hits home," she said. "I am married to a vet. I get it."

• • •

Zien-McCombs is no stranger to humanity's struggles. For more than two decades, she served as an investigator with the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office, working homicide, sex crimes, child abuse and elderly exploitation cases.

"I was really tired of seeing bad stuff," she said, explaining why she retired two years ago.

But it didn't stick.

After a short career at a for-profit college that didn't click with her personal values, she got a job with Hillsborough County.

"I got bored and went to work again," she said. "It is fun. There is a little bit of investigation, and I don't have to put anyone in jail."

• • •

There are nearly 3,000 building code violations currently open in the county.

But one case in particular made Zien-McCombs stop and think last year about how she could help veterans.

Charles Spencer, 80, lived in a mobile home in the western part of the county. There was exposed wiring. The roof was caving in. Trees on the property had fallen over. Used car parts were strewn about the yard.

"It made me really sad to see this old veteran on a ladder trying to fix things," she said.

A religious woman, Zien-McCombs said she went home and prayed. The next day, she said, Alto Construction was on the scene and ultimately agreed to help fix what needed fixing and demolish what needed demolishing.

"I asked who sent him," she said. "He said, 'the man above.' It was good enough for me."

• • •

The success of that effort led Zien-McCombs to think there might be interest in a more permanent program to help veterans maintain their homes free of code violations.

For the past year she has been networking with companies like Alto Construction, but her efforts didn't hit a tipping point until last month. That's when she gathered about 15 contractors and veterans service organizations in a room and created Operation Code Veteran.

Participants say they are happy to help.

David Pierre, owner of Professional Pool Services, met Zien-McCombs at the booth his company set up at the Northdale Fun Fest last month. An Air Force veteran married to a Navy veteran with a son serving in the Army, Pierre said he was immediately impressed by her energy and caring and agreed to pitch in.

That led to his pool company working to clean out a pool belonging to Army veteran James Palmer.

"His pool was pretty much a swamp," Pierre said. "It was brown and sludgy. We are cleaning it up, but it is a process. We've gotten to the point where the water is a blue color. It will be sparkling in another week."

Pierre said his company put in a new pool filter and installed a rebuilt motor on the pump. So far, he and his staff have put in about 20 hours on the job.

"We are happy to do it," he said.

Palmer, 74, said that when Zien-McCombs first came to his house three months ago, he was worried.

"She looked like she was going to give me the business," he said.

But Zien-McCombs instead tried to figure out a way to help Palmer, whose property had become rundown because he is physically unable to maintain it.

"I am very grateful, but kind of embarrassed," Palmer said of the help he's received so far. "It was something I should have taken care of a long time ago, but I have been in the hospital a couple of times and haven't been up to it."

• • •

Saturday marks the public unveiling of Operation Code Veteran, Zien-McCombs said.

She expects about two-dozen volunteers from service organizations like Tampa Crossroads and Hillsborough County Veterans Helping Veterans and companies like J.P. Morgan Chase to show up at the homes of Palmer and Jose Urive, 64, an Army veteran whose property also has fallen into disarray. The volunteers, said Zien-McCombs, will clear away debris and overgrown brush to allow contractors to perform much needed repairs.

For Zien-McCombs, going the extra mile isn't reserved for veterans.

While parked outside Palmer's home during a recent visit, tears came to her eyes as she looked at her phone.

She saw pictures of repair work she helped arrange being done on the residence of a senior citizen elsewhere in the county who was having trouble keeping her property up to code.

"That was very good news," she said.

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.

   
Advertisement