LOGAN — Tim Gagnon’s life is pretty good right now.
But it hasn’t always been that way. In the years since the Army veteran returned from serving in Afghanistan, he’s experienced — like many veterans — homelessness, joblessness, and the overwhelming confusion and headaches that accompany medical bills.
Today, Gagnon has a roof over his head and is a student at Utah State University, where he’s earning an engineering degree. What changed between then and now? In part, connecting with fellow veterans around him, Gagnon says — and learning about benefits and services that he didn’t previously know existed.
A new veterans resource center opening in North Logan next month will act as both a regional social hub and a one-stop-shop of sorts to connect those in need with housing-, employment-, and health care-related resources. The Cache Valley Veterans Association is hoping that the brick-and-mortar center will be particularly helpful for elderly, homeless, and sick or disabled veterans who may face particular challenges when it comes to making the long drive to Salt Lake City, where many services are based, or accessing resources online or over the phone.
“There’s a lot of that conflict, a lot of that barrier, when a lot of the issues we deal with are right here, right now,” said Phil Redlinger, director of the Cache Valley Veterans Association.
The one-stop-shop center won’t be the first of its kind in the U.S., but it will be the first of its kind in Utah. If successful, it could serve as a model for other rural areas.
“This one-stop center, I hope, is the face that changes how the state serves veterans,” Redlinger said, in terms of “what’s important, what we need the most, and that all veterans are being served, not just the community right next to the VA.”
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Nearly a quarter of all veterans in the U.S., or about 4.7 million veterans, make their homes in rural places, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. But while rural vets aren’t few, they are often far between in a literal sense — which can amplify both a sense of social isolation and obstacles to getting help.
One of the biggest challenges in rural places like the Cache Valley, which includes counties in northern Utah and southern Idaho, is simply a lack of awareness when it comes to available services, experts and local veterans say.
“Many of the services are centered in urban core areas,” said Kathryn Monet, CEO of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. “That sort of then lends to a lack of awareness about what services might be available.”
And when people don’t know about services and programs, they don’t participate in them, said Alethea Varra, director of the Rocky Mountain Network Clinical Resource Hub with the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.
That’s where the one-stop-shop center comes in.
“From the VA’s perspective, we’re really hoping this will help the veterans know these exist so they actually participate in them,” Varra said.
The aim of the center is to provide a casual, welcoming atmosphere for veterans. Rather than needing to go significantly out of their way to seek out information, vets will be able to drop into the center and chat casually with an employment coordinator, a housing coordinator, and other specialists.
“There’s no physical place where people can go in the valley to find those answers,” said Logan resident and Vietnam veteran Paul Davis. “It’s been needed for a long time.”
“As veterans, we need to know how to navigate the system, because the system keeps changing,” Gagnon said. “Just having access to somebody who can teach us to navigate the system as it currently is will be amazing.”
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Having a physical place nearby that’s easily accessible may be especially helpful for people who are homeless, older, disabled, or suffering from physical or mental illness. Getting to Salt Lake City can be a challenge for some, especially those that don’t own cars or drive.
Homelessness is often less visible in rural areas than it is in rural areas, Monet said, making proactive outreach more difficult. Unlike in urban areas, where many people experiencing homelessness can be seen on the street, people in rural areas tend to set up camp in more remote, harder-to-find places.
The Cache Valley Veterans Association already conducts regular checks around the region to keep track of the homeless population and offer help. But having a brick-and-mortar building close to a free bus line will make it easier for people to seek out assistance themselves.
The center will also have computers available for veterans to do research and sign up for services — serving not only those who can’t afford a computer or who lack tech savvy, but those living in more remote areas with limited broadband access. Nationally, nearly one in three rural veterans don’t have access to the internet at home, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
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The space for the center, located on 200 East in North Logan, was donated by a Navy veteran who owns the building and a dermatology clinic next door. The veterans center will live in the space for two years lease-free, after which the association can either buy or lease the space for another five years, according to Redlinger.
Starting in January, operations will be funded by a combination of state and federal grants. In the meantime, the veterans association is asking the community for donations. A soft opening for the resource center is planned for Veterans Day.
“I think this is going to be unbelievably effective,” said Wallace Ott, who retired to Logan after a 25-year career in the Air Force and helped facilitate the connection between Redlinger and the donor of the space. “It gives them a home.”
The center will be named for Dan Gyllenskog, a Marine veteran who lived in Smithfield and passed away in 2014.
“He was the kind of guy who believed no veteran should be left behind,” Redlinger said.
A new community-based outpatient clinic for veterans in Logan will complement the resource center, according to Varra. That clinic will be fully functional in about two years.
Beyond the practical offerings and accessibility of the resource center, Gagnon and other local veterans say it will serve another important purpose: bringing people together.
“There’s nothing really where veterans can meet up as a group with like-minded people who have gone through the same type of experiences,” Gagnon said.
“There are things you can share with other veterans that you can’t share with other people,” Davis said. “It’s important to be able to know where to find those folks at.”