YAKIMA — On a recent afternoon, Air Force veteran Robert Bacon, 64, sat in the lounge of Chuck Austin Place in Yakima to share how grateful he is to have a place to call home.

“It’s good — I like it,” he said. “They have free laundromats, two kitchens, Neighborhood Health has a clinic up front. There’s a library. It’s a pretty nice place.”

The recently built center at the former armory in south Yakima offers homeless veterans affordable housing, dental and other services.

The grand opening is set for Veterans Day, Nov. 11.

The center is named after late local veteran Chuck Austin, who served in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Austin died on Jan. 25 at age 95.

The center boasts 41 studio and two-bedroom apartments, a gym, laundry facilities and two community kitchens.

Yakima Neighborhood Health Services operates a dental and health clinic there. Rent is based on income and service coordinators from the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars are on hand.

The center’s need is unquestionable.

The number of unsheltered veterans in Yakima County more than tripled in 2020, according to the annual 2020 Point-in-Time survey.

Of 48 homeless veterans surveyed countywide, half were chronically homeless and 17 were unsheltered, up from five in 2019, the report said.

The center was completed in August and already has 20 units filled. The rest are expected to be filled over the next month, said property manager Maritza Dimas as a man filled out a housing application in her office.

“It is a life-changing experience for a lot of them,” she said. “I’m glad.”

Robert Bacon’s story

Bacon said he joined the Air Force in 1974 and was stationed at Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base south of Kansas City, Missouri. He was honorably discharged after his hitch was up.

He moved into his studio apartment two weeks ago.

Life took a sharp turn for him last spring when his wife, Linda, died.

“When my wife died last April, everything went to hell — pretty bad,” he said.

Bacon left the double-wide mobile home he shared with Linda just outside Selah to his stepson, Chad, and lived in a travel trailer in Vancouver.

Months later, Chad died of a fentanyl overdose. Bacon returned and was forced to sell his double-wide home because he couldn’t afford the rental space.

“It wasn’t even a year later,” he said in reference to his wife’s passing.

He spent the next month living in his Ford van. Bacon said he suffers from kidney failure and is on dialysis.

Bacon headed to the Veterans Affairs office on Fruitvale Boulevard in Yakima to ask for help.

Bacon said he thought the VA would give him a housing voucher good for a few months’ stay at a motel. Instead, the VA secured him an apartment at Chuck Austin Place.

“And they got me in here real quick somehow,” he said.

Crystal Weston’s story

Air Force veteran Crystal Weston, 54, shares a similar story.

She said her husband, Dean Cusick, died about five years ago. She moved in with her parents to help take care of them.

Her father, Dean Weston, also a veteran, died in early 2019. Her mother, Sue, died in December.

At that point, Weston said she had nowhere to go. She said she suffers from Parkinson’s disease and lives off meager monthly VA and Social Security checks.

“What I get from SSI and the VA, it wasn’t enough to rent a place,” she said. “Tell me where you can rent a place with utilities included for $800 a month. There’s not — not in this day and age.”

She spent the next several months bouncing from motel to motel. Then a VA social worker in Walla Walla placed her in a substance abuse recovery house until her apartment at Chuck Austin Place was finished.

She moved in Sept. 1.

“This place is a godsend,” she said. “Everything is brand, brand new.”

Weston said the facilities offered at the center and fellow residents provide a sense of community.

“A couple of us have been talking — ones that don’t have family here — about having potlucks,” she said.

Weston said property manager Dimas and service coordinator Nathan Gano are always there to help.

“They’re good,” she said. “Every day I’ll see one or the other and they’ll ask me how I’m doing, how my health is doing.”

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