Today is Veterans Day, which since 1938 has been a day set aside to honor military veterans. Today is also a day when, in Clark County, an estimated 83 veterans are without homes.
Research indicates some veterans are at greater risk of becoming homeless compared with the general population due to myriad unique circumstances: trauma from combat, a rough transition to civilian life, isolation, among many others. Last year, 320 veterans experienced homelessness in our community, according to the Council for the Homeless.
Lonny Klugman knows what being a veteran experiencing homelessness is like. In 1987, Klugman walked into a recruiting office of the Montana Army National Guard and asked, “Where do I sign?”
But a few years after he left the service in 1992, he began using substances, which eventually led to homelessness. Through community help, Klugman recovered from his addiction and secured housing.
And now his service looks a bit different.
As an outreach specialist for the Homeless Assistance and Resource Team, Klugman is just one of a number of Clark County veterans actively assisting others experiencing homelessness.
‘It changes someone’
In 2022, out of the 88 veterans from Clark County experiencing homelessness who provided ZIP code information, about 80 people reported their permanent location before homelessness in Vancouver. Others were scattered around the county, according to the council.
Looking more closely at the council’s data, 14 veterans became homeless after being housed, and 192 veterans were deemed new to the homelessness system.
Like other demographics of homelessness, the combination of increasingly unaffordable housing and the rising cost of living have left many Clark County veterans homeless.
Twenty-five veterans, of the 88 who provided ZIP code information to the council last year, said they became homeless due to the cost of housing.
Others pointed to a household crisis (13), an eviction (eight), domestic violence (six) and incarceration (three). Twenty-five veterans reported other reasons, and eight did not report a reason.
But experts say veterans face additional barriers that make homelessness more likely and living on the streets more challenging.
Klugman said the transition from service to civilian life can be difficult and challenging. In the service, people are told where to go, what to do, when to be somewhere and who to be. But after discharge, it’s not always a “soft landing” into independence, Klugman said.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of focus on making that transition easier. Your time is up, and there you go,” Klugman said. “There’s not much that’s provided for you when you’re released, especially if you’re exited quickly.”
Some studies say after discharge that 1 in 4 veterans have a job, leading to housing and financial instability.
About half a million veterans are severely rent burdened across the nation — paying more than 50 percent of their income on rent, according to the National Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. More than half live below the poverty line, and 43 percent receive food stamps.
“If I saw ghosts when I slept, I would do whatever I could to avoid it,” Klugman said.
Michael, who declined to give his last name due to privacy, completed two tours in the Middle East and was discharged in 2014, he said. He has been experiencing homelessness for the past two years in Clark County.
“No one helps you unless you have a uniform on,” said Michael, who spoke to The Columbian in early August.
Michael said he struggles with depression because of his time in the service, coupled with the death of his sister and mother who both passed shortly after he returned from combat.
“I looked at dead people out there … I saw a lot,” he said.
Vets helping vets
The Clark County Veterans Assistance Center is a haven for veterans. It is one of the resources locally where veterans are helping veterans. Those who walk through the doors can rest, connect with service officers for disability claims, access social services and receive other necessary supplies. The center also manages Clark County’s Veterans Assistance Fund.
No matter what they’re looking for, the center also offers understanding from people who have walked in their shoes.
Lori Pugh, president of the local veterans’ assistance center, said having someone who understands what it’s like to serve is vital. Most staff at the Clark County Veterans Assistance Center are veterans themselves or have personal connections. Pugh’s husband is a Vietnam veteran.
“It takes a lot of trust,” Pugh said. “Veterans want to know that you understand where they’re coming from, just like anybody else. They want people to know what they went through and how they came to be; they don’t want to have to keep explaining themselves.”
Thacker, with Council for the Homeless, served three years in the Army before he was medically discharged due to jumping off an 85-foot bridge — causing two herniated discs in his back.
He experienced homelessness for four years in Clark County, and now, a T-shirt with the words “Honor the warrior, not the war” is pinned to the wall over his office desk at the council. Thacker uses his experience to build relationships with veterans who were in the shoes he once wore and connect them with resources.
“Telling people that those resources are out there is what I try to get across to the people I’m working with,” Thacker said. “And I’m going to walk them through every step of the way.”
Thacker said distrust fuels a reluctance among some veterans to access government assistance or other resources. He said a few have lost faith in the system and don’t believe the agencies will help them.
So he uses his experience to gain back that trust and show them there are people looking out for them.
“I say: ‘Give me a chance. Let me show you what’s out there,’” Thacker said.
Sheila Andrews served in the Army for three years. Years after leaving the Army, she experienced homelessness as a byproduct of trauma from before her service. Andrews now works as the encampment response coordinator for the city of Vancouver’s HART team.
“Once out, veterans miss that camaraderie, and when they don’t have a community, they become isolated,” Andrews said. “Because I am a veteran, I’ve also lived in addiction. I lived outside — I can connect with them.”
Council for the Homeless’ data shows that as of November, Clark County is in a “downward shift” with veterans experiencing homelessness. This means that veteran homelessness is decreasing to a level where it would be on par with available resources.
So far this year, 43 veterans were housed. Last year, 78 veterans were housed, according to council data.
The council uses an initiative called Built for Zero to collect that data. The data identifies veterans — as well as other groups experiencing homelessness — by name and in real time. This allows the county to simplify pathways to housing and leverage services.
Sunny Wonder, deputy director for the council, said the agency also aims to continue strengthening partnerships between the agency and veteran-focused programs.
“The veteran community, there’s such passion and support about finding solutions and offering resources,” Wonder said.
But one thing is clear. Veterans deserve help. Veterans are the ones who make it possible for Clark County residents to have a safe place to live and they should as well.
“They did so much for us,” Pugh said. “They deserve us to help them now.”
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.