Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

VA officials hold grand opening Monday in Spokane that helps homeless vets

Shannon Dunkin, Healthcare for Homeless Veterans coordinator, on right, gives Spokane Mayor David Condon and Director of Veterans Services Cathrene "Cat" Nichols a tour of the new Healthcare for Homeless Veterans building on Monday. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

A twenty-something woman in sunglasses had her phone pressed to her face Monday as she complained that her friend with the fix didn’t show.

Then she marched down the sun-drenched downtown Spokane sidewalk in a pair of worn leopard-print shoes..

Two blocks from the phone-fix drama stood a crowd of well-dressed people gathered to listen to Spokane Mayor David Condon welcome the grand opening of Veteran Affair’s Homeless Outreach center at 504 E. Second Ave.

The location of the building was placed where dozens of Spokane’s homeless were searching Monday for shade, a place to sleep or waiting for the charity houses to provide a meal.

“We were one of the first VAs in the country to launch a downtown outreach center,” said Quinn Bastian, a psychologist who is the Chief of Behavioral Health at Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center located in northwest Spokane. “We knew the closer we are to the places where homeless people spend their time, the more likely it was to have them come in.”

The center, which has been operational at its new location since Feb. 22 but didn’t get all of its final furniture in place until April, is a complete, one-stop shop for any veteran staring at hard times, said Shannon Dunkin, who is the coordinator for Healthcare for Homeless Veterans.

The center has about 30 in-house employees, and a couple who work in Wenatchee and in Coeur d’Alene, who try to expedite the sometimes onerous process of securing VA benefits.

“We can expedite those claims for homeless veterans. We’ve had people come in who have been living in their trucks to recent home owners,” Dunkin said. “Sometimes they need a few months. Sometimes they need services for years.”

Once the staffers get the basic information, they begin a clinical assessment to determine whether the veteran needs medical help, mental health counseling and whether they need a home.

A couple of years ago, a veteran came into the center, asked for help and two days later was undergoing open-heart surgery in Seattle, she said.

“Veterans in particular are proud. Many say, ‘I shouldn’t have to ask for help,’” Dunkin said. “So, we have to work within those barriers. That’s why we are here to be helpful.”

Some 1,500 to 1,700 veterans a year come to the office seeking help. Sometimes, they’ve waited decades before they reached out.

Despite the stories of patients with post traumatic stress disorder coming out of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, most of the homeless vets who use the outreach center served during the Vietnam War-era, Bastian said.

A recent study of when veterans seek help showed that the peak demand came some 40 years after they served their country, he said.

“We certainly are seeing it now with the Vietnam vets,” he said. “I hope improvements in reducing the mental health stigma is making it easier for veterans to reach out for resources sooner.”

That’s a big reason VA officials picked the location for the new office, which outgrew space its old office at 705 W. Second Ave.

“We need to be where the people we serve are,” Dunkin said. “The VA (hospital) can be this big entity. When folks come in here, maybe it’s less scary, which is what we want.”