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News / Clark County News

‘You can have a brand-new life’: Once-homeless veteran becomes first graduate of Kiggins Village Safe Stay

James McKinney praises staff at Vancouver transitional shelter as he moves into an apartment

By Mia Ryder-Marks, Columbian staff reporter
Published: May 15, 2024, 6:07am
5 Photos
James McKinney stands outside his former pallet shelter at Vancouver&rsquo;s Kiggins Village Safe Stay community. McKinney recently moved into an apartment, which he views as his forever home.
James McKinney stands outside his former pallet shelter at Vancouver’s Kiggins Village Safe Stay community. McKinney recently moved into an apartment, which he views as his forever home. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

When James McKinney walked into Kiggins Village for the first time, he told staff, “This is not going to work.”

Program manager Dale Smith told McKinney to give the place a week. Turns out, the transitional shelter was the right fit for McKinney.

In March, McKinney, 65, a veteran who was homeless for many years, moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Vancouver.

McKinney was the first graduate from Kiggins Village, the city of Vancouver’s fourth Safe Stay shelter, which consists of 20 sheds enclosed by a fence in the Lincoln neighborhood. Kiggins Village is overseen by nonprofit Do Good Multnomah.

“I want to show others that you can move on, it can be done, and you can have a brand-new life,” McKinney said.

Breaking the mold

McKinney grew up in the small town of Ashford, which sits at the foot of Mount Rainier. He was one of 10 siblings.

He joined the U.S. Army after high school. In 1978, he became a timber logger and was in the profession for 38 years.

“In the fifth grade, the other kids would say I wasn’t big enough to be a logger. But then guess who was asking me for a job years later,” he said.

McKinney lived in several states over the years, from Montana to Florida. But as he aged, he became too old to keep up with his profession. He eventually found his way to the Pacific Northwest, where he became homeless.

McKinney said he slept in the woods with only a blanket.

He eventually met with U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs staff who helped McKinney get into shelter.

“I had to get my head out of my rear-end and ask somebody for some help,” McKinney said. “I met the right people, and I’m telling you: They broke the mold with me when I met them.”

Allen Martinez, a veterans outreach coordinator for the VA, introduced McKinney to Smith, the program manager at Do Good Multnomah, at last year’s Stand Down event, an annual resource event for veterans and their families. Do Good Multnomah was able to get him into Wy’East, a Portland-based shelter for veterans. He then stayed in a VA shelter for a few days before moving into Kiggins Village.

“Everybody that works here is wonderful. I couldn’t have done it as quickly as I did, alone,” McKinney said. “They got everything you need right now.”

New beginnings

At Kiggins Village, McKinney was known for his great sense of humor, helping other residents and keeping his home extra tidy.

“He’s just a solid person,” Smith said.

Kiggins Village staff helped McKinney finish the necessary steps to move into housing. He already had a veterans housing voucher, and 2½ months later, he moved into his new apartment.

McKinney returns to Kiggins Village once a week to visit, and he volunteers to pick up litter around the property. McKinney said he is thankful for the staff at Kiggins Village for giving him the opportunity to progress in life.

“These people donated their lives to me for a couple of months, now I can donate a little time to them. I’m really thankful and grateful for all of them,” McKinney said.

Inside McKinney’s new apartment, he pointed to a cluster of vintage concert posters he’s collected. Each holds nostalgia. One is a multicolored The Beatles poster, dated Feb. 9, 1964.

“I watched this concert debut on the television as a kid,” he said.

McKinney has decorated window sills and bookshelves with various knickknacks, Army memorabilia and treasures he found in his favorite rivers. He spoke proudly of his space and gushed about his neighborhood as he drifted through the various rooms.

He’s still on the hunt for a queen-size bed for his guest bedroom. Then, his grandchildren can visit him, something that wasn’t possible before.

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McKinney said he is still getting used to living in “the big city.” But he knows he is finally home.

“This is going to be my last house, I love it here. It’s beautiful,” McKinney said.

Community Funded Journalism logo

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.

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