For the volunteers and staff at the Clark County Veterans Assistance Center in Vancouver, seeing regulars isn’t a good thing.
Every room in the narrow, two-story building on Columbia Street is filled with donated supplies: food, hygiene items, clothing and outdoor equipment including backpacks and sleeping bags. Staff can connect veterans to financial aid or help them locate housing and job opportunities.
The volunteers love knowing that homeless vets and others in need are seeking support, but the sight is upsetting and wouldn’t exist in an ideal world, said volunteer Ruth Lakel. It isn’t uncommon to see the same veterans who have visited the center for years.
With a seemingly endless amount of obstacles appearing during the pandemic, the need for support continues to grow and, in turn, is leading to burnout.
As of February, there were 87 homeless veterans in Clark County who applied for general assistance, according to the Homeless Management Information System. Judy Russel, the center’s chief operations officer, said the number doesn’t reflect the stark number, which is presumably much larger, as not all homeless vets seek out help from the center.
Adapting to circumstances
As the days passed in March 2020 and health guidelines were established, the dozen volunteers changed their operations accordingly. Although this meant staff and their clients were safer, vets were no longer able to sit down in the center and eat a hot meal. Instead, volunteers provide sack lunches to those waiting outside the building’s glass door.
Lori Pugh, the assistance center’s vice president, said time moved on and volunteers gained a knack of garnering what a vet needed, whether it was getting connected to social services or walking away with a cane and new clothes.
However, the task of providing financial support while working remotely proved to be an issue for vets and the center’s two veteran resource officers. Not everyone is tech savvy, Pugh said.
A burden on vets’ accessibility evolves into a greater challenge when they are added to an already-lengthy call log filled with others seeking military benefits. The list itself has more than 90 names, and each claim takes around five hours to complete, resulting in each caseworker submitting one or two claims a day.
Russel, a licensed veteran service officer, said the job may seem daunting because of the required amount of paperwork to submit a claim, yet the hardest part is facing the emotions each case brings to the forefront. It can be devastating to hear someone’s story about the violence they saw or experienced all while knowing there is a possibility their claim will get denied, she said.
In the moment, though, there is nothing they can do other than listen.
“You’re sitting with a veteran who served their country and signed a check basically saying, ‘I will give everything, even my life, for my country,’ ” she said. “A lot of them feel like when they come home, nobody cares and that they’re thrown away.”
It isn’t uncommon for the emotionally taxing job to result in service officers working part time or leaving the position entirely, Russel said.
Frustration builds within veterans as they face their own mortality and don’t receive support at a pace they anticipate, Pugh said. They know how their military service caused their cancer, diabetes or PTSD, and they are trying to quickly establish a financial cushion for themselves and their families. It isn’t uncommon for these emotions to be directed toward the volunteers working at the front desk.
“They want someone to do it now, because they don’t know if they’ve got later,” she said. “All of that comes to a head on the phone to our volunteers who are just answering the phone. Sometimes (it’s) a little difficult.”
Playing it by ear
The assistance center complies with state mandates, meaning they won’t be able to operate in-person until Washington’s mask guidelines are lifted. Pugh said the ambiguity of the future makes it difficult to envision how their operations will change, but they are certain they will do what is necessary to make support available.
“We serve them the way they served us,” she said.