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News / Clark County News

With help of Vancouver Safe Stay, former soldier who had lived in truck heads to complex for veterans

Retiree urges other veterans to ask for help, get benefits they deserve

By Mia Ryder-Marks, Columbian staff reporter
Published: April 23, 2024, 6:07am
4 Photos
After three years without stable housing, James Turner is moving out of Vancouver&rsquo;s Kiggins Village Safe Stay and into veterans housing in Port Orchard.
After three years without stable housing, James Turner is moving out of Vancouver’s Kiggins Village Safe Stay and into veterans housing in Port Orchard. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

James Turner popped open the hood of his red Ford truck and checked the engine. Soon, he will hop in his truck — which used to be his only shelter — and drive north to his new home.

Turner, 62, currently lives in Kiggins Village, a Vancouver Safe Stay shelter that consists of 20 huts enclosed by a fence in the Lincoln neighborhood. But in the next couple of weeks, Turner will move to a housing complex for veterans in Port Orchard to be closer to family.

He’s among the first residents of Kiggins Village, which opened in December, to land stable housing. The Portland-based nonprofit Do Good Multnomah operates Kiggins Village, one of four Safe Stay shelters established by the city of Vancouver since 2021. Do Good Multnomah serves homeless veterans, so many of Kiggins Village’s residents have served in the armed forces.

According to an April 15 report to the Vancouver City Council, four Kiggins Village residents have exited into housing, and one person has entered detox treatment.

“It’s enriching when someone we’ve been supporting for weeks — sometimes months — receives the keys to their apartment under their own name,” Do Good CEO Daniel Hovanas said in an email. “However, it’s also important to recognize that permanent housing isn’t the only measure of success. Our goal is to assist individuals in moving toward all of their goals … whether that means transitioning to a long-term program, entering detox, or joining a clean and sober program. Each of these outcomes represents a significant win.”

‘It all just snowballed’

Research shows veterans face a greater risk of becoming homeless compared with the general population for a variety of reasons, including trauma from combat. In March, the Council for the Homeless counted 80 homeless veterans in Clark County.

Turner, a U.S. Army veteran, was a long-haul truck driver and three-time homeowner. After he left his job as a truck driver, he was couch surfing and renting rooms with friends about 100 miles away from Vancouver. He worked briefly at a construction company but got a concussion on the job.

Turner, who has lived in Clark County for more than 30 years, had a bit of savings and could cash out his worker’s compensation claim once a month. But his money dwindled.

Turner began living in his truck.

“Everybody’s looking at you. You can try to be incognito, but it’s pretty obvious that somebody’s living in their car. It’s not fun,” he said.

After a few months of bopping between motel parking lots, he moved into the city of Vancouver’s Safe Park, which offers support to people living in their cars. Turner said living in his truck was hard, especially on his body.

“It all just snowballed, and here I am now. But I’m thankful that I am here because the alternative would have been worse,” Turner said.

Turner said that some veterans do not trust the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs because they’ve lost faith in the system.

“I wish more veterans would make the effort and not be fearful of receiving help,” Turner said. “It did take me a bit. I’m still kind of weirded out about it all because I’ve pretty much always been able to take care of myself. But veterans have benefits and should utilize them because they deserve to get those benefits.”

After Turner spent a few months living at the Safe Park, staff there connected him to Kiggins Village. Dale Smith, program manager for Kiggins Village, said when staffers met Turner for the first time, they knew he’d be a good fit for the community. He was actively working with the VA and in line for a housing voucher. Turner moved into Kiggins Village that same day.

Smith said when new residents arrive, Kiggins Village staff meet with them and talk about how to help them reach their goals.

Do Good Multnomah works with the VA, Sea Mar Community Health Centers, Columbia River Mental Health, Outsiders Inn, Council for the Homeless and Vancouver’s homeless outreach team.

“Each individual comes to us with a different set of circumstances, different barriers, different stories,” Smith said. “They’re the professionals in their own walk forward, and we just walk alongside them.”

Smith said staff start by listening.

“A lot of us who don’t struggle with this will just say, ‘If you need an ID, why don’t you just go get your ID?’ But when you’re used to being told ‘no’ so many times, people will usually end up not doing things because they’re used to being told ‘no,’ ” Smith said. “Our hope is that we can inspire some to build trust, build relationships, and then have dignity.”

Do Good Multnomah staff were able to help Turner get additional documents that helped in his housing process.

Smith said moving out of Kiggins Village and into housing creates an array of new challenges.

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“For me, personally, when people get keys in their hands, I’m scared,” Smith said. “Where I get excited is whenever I see them a year or two down the road, either coming back visiting or just seeing them walking on the street with a smile on their face.”

Turner is excited to live closer to family. But he plans on visiting Kiggins Village to see old friends and staff. He said the change makes him a bit nervous, but he feels good about the future.

“I couldn’t have done this without the folks (at Do Good) helping me navigate and pointing me in the right direction,” Turner said. “Six months ago, I felt horrible about the situation I was in, but now I’m feeling way better and feel like I can actually enjoy my retirement. I’m confident I will.”

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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.