Sunday, February 17, 2008

Homeless Veteran Stand Down

This weekend I volunteered at the Homeless Veterans Stand Down sponsored by US Vets in Phoenix. US Vets is a non-profit that provides transitional assistance and housing for homeless veterans to help them get off the street and back into what the rest of us consider a normal life. A "stand down" is a military term for pulling the troops out of combat for some R&R.

In this case the stand down was the opportunity for homeless vets in Phoenix to access a variety of support services, from VA to Social Security, to medical screening, showers, haircuts, clothing and meals. The sponsors estimated that about 400 veterans (out of an estimated 3,000 homeless veterans in the area) took advantage of the services available. We even did a live remote broadcast of About Face from the site, interviewing the various providers and participants. For someone like me, who's pretty jaded about most everything, it was a good opportunity to do something direct and positive.

Except...

Why in the hell do private citizens and non-profits have to do this? I don't mind helping out but it boggles the mind (and mine doesn't boggle easily) that this nation treats veterans who have served their country this way. Yeah, I know some of these guys (and women) are fucked up for reasons not related to military service, but the fact is that many are. Even more so, the nation has promised to take care of these veterans after their service. The homeless veterans are a difficult group to address since many just don't want or trust any outside help. It seems that the nation is more than willing to just let it end there.

The Department of Veterans Affairs was a major contributor to the weekend events. Their medical and social service staff were out in force, screening vets and signing them up for services. Their kitchen staff provided all the meals. The VA Homeless Outreach Coordinator was on site for much of the stand down. So it's not like the nation is ignoring the problem entirely. It just seems a shame that so many veterans end up on the streets in the first place.

I spent my time there serving food and distributing clothing. It was my first encounter with homeless in some time. In the early 90's I had a studio in a building adjacent to two single room occupancy hotels (aka, flop houses) and the residents would wander in during shows and eat our munchies. Sometimes we'd drink with them at the bar next door so I know most are pretty harmless and some are quite interesting. This weekend encounters were no different except that these are guys I served with in Vietnam (figuratively speaking) and we had some direct experiences in common. Most seemed pretty normal and happy for the opportunity afforded by the stand down. Still I couldn't avoid he reality that I would sleep in a bed when I went home at night. Many of them would not.

America has always been a land of community initiative and outreach, although for much of our history those efforts have excluded all sorts of people like African Americans, Native Americans and, all too often, the homeless. In my lifetime many of those exclusions have been eliminated so I guess that volunteer efforts are in keeping with our more altruistic side.

Still, only about one in seven area homeless vets participated. Lord knows were all the others are. What about them?

Oh yeah, Bill O'Reilly did not attend.

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