Homeless vets find care, smiles in PleasantonIt was quite a sight last weekend to mingle with and help serve the 350 homeless veterans who were at the Alameda County Fairgrounds for a four-day event called "Stand Down." The event, held every two years, is a profound and life-changing experience with lasting impacts for the veterans as well as the volunteers who spent the weekend helping them. While here, the veterans were offered free medical, dental, social and legal services, even special care for their pets which many brought with them. When they left by buses last Sunday to go back to where they live, they sported haircuts, new clothes and luggage, even a few new walking sticks.
Stand Down is a war term that refers to the practice of removing combat troops from the battlefield so that they can be cared for in a safe area. It's estimated that there are more than 180,000 needy and homeless veterans throughout the country on any given night and as many as 10,000 in Northern California alone. The 350 who registered to come to the East Bay Stand Down obviously are just a small part of this group, but at least they now have not only the advantage of gaining a few friends among the hundreds of volunteers who served them, but also reference materials as to where they can go for follow-up care, even jobs.
The first Stand Down was held in San Diego in 1988 and now these events are held in more than 200 cities in addition to Pleasanton. The care, counseling and personal contacts they make help to break the cycle of homelessness. Somebody cares, they now know.
Typically, a homeless person must spend inordinate amounts of time and energy going from one service agency to another. Often, duplicate efforts cause frustration and alienation from the very agencies and processes designed to help them. Fearing arrest or a fine, a veteran may not attempt to seek help of any type because of a minor offense. At last week's Stand Down, each veteran was interviewed, counseled and provided legal advice. Moving through the tent city that was set up at the Fairgrounds, specialists checked each veteran and steered them to doctors, dentists, judges and others who volunteered their services on the Fairgrounds. Active and reserve military slept in the same tents and led the veterans to the service areas.
When we saw the veterans coming off the buses that brought them here a week ago, there were many smiles of anticipation that at last someone cared. When they left at noon Sunday with their clean belongings and a few packed sandwiches for an evening meal, there were more smiles and thanks, even embraces by those who cared and who needed care.