The phone seems to ring every few minutes at the Clark County Veterans Assistance Center.
A few older men wearing baseball caps with various military branches on them sip coffee while volunteers bustle about.
One volunteer crouches down to help someone fill out paperwork. Another rushes to answer the phone. Lori Pugh, the center’s president, heads to the back where shelves are packed with shoes, dog food, jeans and even cooking spray.
When asked just how many volunteers work at the center, Pugh laughs. “Not enough,” she said. “We probably have, I don’t know, 20? But we need 40.”
The downtown Vancouver center is a haven for many of Clark County’s homeless veterans. They can rest indoors, eat, receive vital supplies, talk to service officers about disability claims and survivors benefits, and access social services.
The center administers Clark County’s Veteran’s Assistance Fund, which helps low-income veterans pay for everything from car repairs to dental care. In a county with especially high rents, one of its most essential functions is rental assistance.
But not all veterans can access the county’s funds — only those with honorable discharges. It’s the most common kind of discharge and the key to unlocking most veterans’ benefits. Yet many people who served have other than honorable discharges from disciplinary actions, a failed a drug test or other issues.
Even if someone has an honorable discharge, the county will only pay rent once a year. The veteran also has to be on the verge of eviction by receiving a 14-day notice to pay rent or vacate.
“The county money we get is very restricted. They have to make so much and not a dollar more, they have to have this paperwork — it’s a deal-breaker,” Pugh said. “So when we have a lot of veterans that are in need that don’t fit into that peg, we at the center use the money we’ve raised to pay it.”
In these cases, the center provides “the little things” veterans need so they can save money to pay rent themselves.
It’s why the center’s back rooms are full of random household items and boxes of meal ingredients.
“The little things” can be unconventional, Pugh said. The center pays the cab fare for a veteran in his 80s to get chemotherapy in Portland. It has replaced a veteran’s broken refrigerator and paid to fill up another veteran’s gas tank.
The volunteers are constantly planning fundraisers and organizing events to find the money for these resources.
They just finished a golf tournament fundraiser. They’re preparing to distribute back-to-school supplies. Next month, the annual Stand Down event will help veterans and their families access clothing, haircuts and other supplies and services.
It’s a lot of work, but there’s a lot of need.
Pugh said the center served 157 veterans that identified as homeless at last year’s Stand Down — over a hundred more than the county’s Point in Time Count identified.
“I think there are a lot of homeless veterans out there — more than people know,” Pugh said.
There are available housing resources for these veterans, even for those with other than honorable discharges, but finding them without help is difficult. That’s where Scott Thacker comes in.
As a veteran who was once homeless himself, he’s “been there.” Thacker comes into the center once a week, bringing with him his expertise from working for Council for the Homeless, and guides fellow veterans about what resources might be available to them.
“When I was homeless, I didn’t know a lot of these resources were out there. I had no idea,” he said.
Thacker said he likes that many of the volunteers are veterans or the family members of veterans. It helps build trust between volunteers and the people they help.
The connections the volunteers have to the service are part of the reason why they spend so much of their time helping around the center.
Pugh, whose husband was a Vietnam veteran, works at the center Mondays through Thursdays and works a part-time job on Fridays and Saturdays. It’s the success stories that make her put in the many hours, she said.
Roy Garvie is one of those success stories.
In 2017, while living on the streets of Vancouver, a veteran at a booth gave Garvie an informational card for a center he’d never heard of. Within a couple of days, he found the building and walked in, intoxicated. He was struggling with his mental and physical health, Garvie said.
But the center didn’t turn him away. It’s different from a lot of places in that regard, Pugh said. The only rule she has is that people have to behave themselves.
For a year and a half, Garvie came into the center — seeking refuge from the weather, chatting and eating many of the home-cooked meals Pugh made. But, one day, he decided he wanted to make a change. He told Pugh he wanted to get sober.
“He says, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,’ ” Pugh said.
The volunteers got him connected with Columbia River Mental Health. After four weeks of being treated for addiction, he got into an Oxford house — sober housing that’s democratically run by the residents. He’s been housed and sober ever since.
Now, the veteran is serving again — just in a different way. He’s devoting his life to helping others.
He volunteers for FISH’s food pantry. He’s a passerby who pays for people’s parking when they don’t have coins for the meter. He fixes appliances for other veterans at the center.
“They didn’t back away from the challenge of getting me straightened out, and look at me now,” he said. “I’m not the only one.”
He trusts Pugh so much, she’s his medical power of attorney.
“I kind of feel like she’s had my back through the whole way,” Garvie said. “And even now, she’s not just the president here, but she’s a close friend.”
The center’s volunteers work hard to see stories like this unfold.
Most volunteers didn’t return after the pandemic, Pugh said, and the center is still working to address the gaps it left. But the little actions community members do help fill them in.
Organizations drop off leftover snacks from their meetings. One man delivers two dozen doughnuts a week to go with the veterans’ coffee. A sixth-grader at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School collects socks and snacks for the center.
“Every little thing helps,” Pugh said.
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.