If you’ve driven along 23rd Street in Ogden, you might have noticed a distinctive white building sitting between Jefferson and Adams avenues.
Built in 1912, the Art Deco structure has stood in the same spot for 104 years. But despite its long tenure and recognizable features, Utah’s former Veterans Affairs director Terry Schow says it’s “the best-kept secret in the state.”
Marked by a prominent flagpole and white fence, the building is home to the Ogden Homeless Veterans Fellowship — a little-known, independent organization that’s been quietly serving an oft-forgotten and sometimes invisible segment of Ogden’s population for nearly 30 years.
“Not many people know about it,” says Schow, who served as executive director of the Utah VA from 2001 to 2013. “And that kind of speaks to the nature of the work done there. They serve homeless veterans without expecting a lot of hoopla or pats on the back.”
The Fellowship provides housing, counseling services, case management and a host of other programs to veterans who have become homeless. The organization serves all veterans, including those with criminal pasts and felony convictions. Participants are only required to provide documented proof of their military service.
“We serve all veterans, regardless of their past or condition,” said Jeff Kane, OVHF’s executive director. “We have some people with very severe mental illness. We serve people that are on the sex offender registry, people coming out of prison. It’s veterans that most other programs don’t serve.”
Kane said the veterans in the program also span a wide demographic range.
“It’s all different ages, different backgrounds, they’re from different parts of the country,” he said. “Some are here because of one-time economic events, some are here as a result of a lifetime of patterns that lead them down this road.”
The organization has a yearly operating budget of about $1 million, Kane said, most of which comes from fundraising, private donations and local, state and federal grants. A small portion also comes from the program participants themselves.
“We do have some program fees,” Kane said. “Participants with incomes are encouraged to contribute some of that to using the services.”
Participants are also required to perform chores around the facility. Kane said the operation revolves around teaching self-sustainability.
“We do believe that they need to take on the responsibilities of being an active member of society,” he said. “Part of that is paying rent, working, having an income. We don’t really believe you explore and expand your abilities by watching a lot of cable TV. Sitting at home in the living room isn’t a lifestyle that is benefiting anyone really.”
The OHVF’s transitional housing program allows veterans to live in one of the organization’s 50 housing units for up to 18 months, though Kane said most participants transition into permanent housing within a year. Veterans in the transitional housing program are required to stay drug- and alcohol-free and attend groups and individual counseling sessions.
The program also offers limited permanent housing for veterans who need longer-term intensive case management. Veterans in the permanent housing program work from an individual treatment plan and are expected to continue with case management and stay clean and sober.
“Our program is not going to meet everybody’s needs,” said Laura Fuller, a counselor and clinical social worker at OHVF. “If somebody struggles with some of the rules we have, like the alcohol and drug free campus, we do try and find them a program that meets their needs. Those are things we have to have, just for basic order.”
The organization works closely with the VA — which can provide more intensive impatient treatment for mental health and addiction issues — the Utah Department of Workforce Services and local homeless shelters. With limited funds and resources, the small but dedicated staff at the OHVF takes on a variety of duties.
“No day is average really,” said Bobi Pace, OHVF’s clinical director and a licensed social worker. “We’re a nonprofit organization, so we (have) our job titles, but we kind of have to do whatever is necessary at the moment.”
Kane elaborated on the catch-all philosophy.
“You kind of do anything, you’re a jack of all trades,” he said. “We’ve been called in the middle of the night, one of our veterans saying ‘Hey, the toilet’s flooding.’ Whatever we need to do, we jump and do it. If you’re a nonprofit like us, you can’t say, ‘This is my job description, this is the hat I wear and I won’t do anything else.’ ”
Eugene Morris, a 65-year-old Vietnam veteran who lives in Ogden, said the OHVF helped him overcome a pattern of self-destruction that kept him in and out of homelessness for several decades.
“I owe my life to them,” Morris said, who has been living in a home on 28th Street for the past six years. “There are a lot of people that helped me get out of my situation and those guys are near the top of the list.”