VANCOUVER, Wash. (KOIN) — VA mental health counselor Brett Anderson started working with homeless vets only a few months before the pandemic began. In those 2 years, he’s seen an explosion in homelessness among those who served.

“Since I started working at the VA in Vancouver, I’ve seen it grow at least 3 times what it was when I first got into the peer support role,” Anderson told KOIN 6 News.

Anderson brings an informed perspective to the subject. He was homeless himself, living in vans and tents on a notorious Vancouver block for 14 consecutive years.

“If you haven’t been there before, it’s hard to understand what it takes to escape that homeless cycle,” he said.

There are nearly 1 million veterans living in Oregon and Washington. Thousands of them are homeless. But a special VA partnership is helping them get back on their feet.

Like Brett Anderson.

VA mental health counselor Brett Anderson in Portland, November 2021 (KOIN)

In the 1980s he graduated from Evergreen High School in Vancouver and achieved success as a mental health counselor in the Air Force. After leaving the service, he started a family. But deep inside, he struggled.

“When I got out of the military I really suffered, a type of depression or whatever, because when you get out after being part of something bigger than you, you really have a hole,” he said. “Some people do. I did. A feeling like, ‘What’s next?'”

For him, a divorce was next. Then he spiraled into homelessness. Anderson also developed drug and health problems during nearly 15 years on the street.

“There was a time where I thought because I’d become homeless and got in trouble, I never thought I’d be a counselor again.”

But an unexpected life-changing moment happened after a much-needed medical procedure at the Portland VA Hospital.

“I woke up in my hospital room and a bunch of them stodd over the foot of my bed and said, ‘Thank you for your service to our country,'” he told KOIN 6 News. “I broke down and started cryng. It felt good and sort of odd for somebody to treat me with that kind of respect.”

Those VA workers helped Anderson get a job at the hospital and sign up for VA programs which provided rental assistance and help with finding his own apartment. Four years later, he guides other vets struggling with homelessness through the same housing program he said saved his life.

Freedom’s Path is a community for veterans in Vancouver, November 2021 (KOIN)

“See, that’s the beautiful thing, that now I’m doing the exact same thing they did for me when I came to the VA,” Anderson said. “We are kind of setting an example for the community to do the same in providing housing for these people. I think everybody deserves a roof over their head of some sort.”

The HUD-VASH program that helped Brett Anderson currently provides housing vouchers to 2200 veterans in Oregon and Southwest Washington.