Helping homeless vets get a leg up

SAN DIEGO — For days makeshift shelters and sleeping bags had been appearing against the chain link fence of San Diego High School’s baseball diamond as homeless people congregated, waiting to get in. By the time the gates were opened in the early morning hours on July 17, 2009 hundreds of homeless men and women were waiting. Each person’s story was unique, but all 930 people who came through the gate that morning had one common tie—they had all served their country as a member of the armed forces—and they were now homeless. 

The veterans came for Stand Down 2009, an annual three-day community-based intervention event aimed at helping homeless veterans by bringing all the services they need to one place.

Stand Down was organized by Veteran’s Village of San Diego (VVSD), an organization dedicated to helping homeless veterans year-round. Volunteers and organizations in the community team up to provide a plethora of services to the veterans. Everything from basic needs, such as medical attention, food, showers, clothing and haircuts to legal counseling and addiction meetings was available at Stand Down. Participants also had access to massage therapy, acupuncture and expressive outlets such as writing and art.

“The goal of Stand Down is to help people be the hero of their own lives–to be able to change and move to a place of health and wellness; to empower them to get off the street and to provide an environment that is supportive of that,” said Marilyn Cornell, clinical director of VVSD, tent leader coordinator for Stand Down and Bravo tent leader. “We try to reduce the barriers to the things that they need and to bring them all to one place so they can access all the services that they need. Our goal is to give them a chance.”

For the 22nd consecutive year the baseball diamond’s outfield was transformed into a pseudo-military camp, complete with neat rows of green and beige tents, each labeled with a letter of the phonetic alphabet, and a crackling PA system used to make announcements to the camp.

Participants were divided into groups and assigned to the tents that would be their homes for the weekend in true military style, with tent leaders and squad leaders assigned to help the participants.

As the participants settled into their tents, the Stand Down campus assumed a steady rhythm.

“Yankee tent to clothing,” the voice on the PA directed. “Blue group to the chow line.” The days passed with the participants rotating through the services and wound down with live music each night.

“I just doubled my wardrobe,” said one Bravo tent participant who had just returned from the clothing distribution line. “I only had the clothes I walked in with.” He said he had a medical condition that caused seizures, and when the last one struck he awoke from it to find everything he had with him had been stolen.

“I had a job interview yesterday,” said another excited participant, “I think it went well, things are looking good!” Volunteers from Stand Down helped out by driving him to the interview.

Among the hundreds of volunteers were active duty military members stationed in the San Diego area, including a handful of Coast Guardsmen.

“Stand Down has been a really great experience,” said Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Marc Mares, of Coast Guard Sector San Diego, who volunteered at Stand Down for the first time this year. “It’s easy to be detached when you are driving around San Diego and you see someone on the street with a sign that says ‘homeless vet’, but when you spend time with someone you can really put a story with the face and sympathize and understand their situation.”

“Stand Down is a powerful experience,” said Marine Corps Capt. David Cote, who is stationed at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD) and volunteered for his third Stand Down this year. “The services–hygiene, clothing and food are pretty standard, but what’s more important is that the veterans can come here and be accepted and loved, and have a sense of camaraderie.”

The participants are not the only ones who benefit from the Stand Down experience.

“The real secret is that volunteers who give back to the veterans in this way get so much more in return,” Cornell said.

Cote concurred.

“It’s very hard to walk away with less than what you came with, in every case it’s more,” he said. “I’m walking away with a much fuller heart and greater compassion.”

The weekend was punctuated by special events such as visits by Brig. Gen. Angela Salinas, commanding officer of MCRD, and Congressman Bob Filner who came to show their support for the cause.

Stand Down culminated in a graduation ceremony, with each tent’s participants marching in turn around the parade field to the sound of bagpipes. The graduates filtered back out through the gates, hopefully better equipped to pull themselves off the streets.

“It’s hard to say goodbye,” Mares said, “but hopefully I’ve developed some relationships that will continue beyond the Stand Down weekend.”

Some graduates will be admitted into VVSD or other programs for further treatment, others will most likely return to Stand Down next year. One thing is certain, for both participants and volunteers, Stand Down made a tangible difference in their lives.

The number of participants at Stand Down has increased over the years, Cornell said, and with a new generation of veterans returning from the current war in Iraq and Afghanistan homelessness among veterans will continue to be a growing problem. San Diego’s Stand Down has spawned similar events in many cities nationwide. As long as homelessness is a problem among veterans there will be events like Stand Down to help them get back on their feet and give them a fighting chance to improve their situation. “It’s really a shame that any veteran in the United States is homeless,” said Cornell. “We are proud to be with them and help them have a chance at the life they deserve.”

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