United States Department of Veterans Affairs
 Health Care
VA reaches out to homeless Veterans through stand down events
people serving food
Military personnel serve homeless Veterans food at the 2010 East Bay Stand Down.
Photo courtesy of Concord VA Vet Center.

For the more than 107,000 homeless Veterans in the U.S., outreach efforts like stand downs offer a small taste of home and the assistance to build a better life.

Intervention is the primary mission for VA Medical Centers that participate in stand downs. More important than the food, clothing and medical attention offered to Veterans is the chance to enter them into VA’s support network and break the cycle of homelessness.

“We bring the programs [to the stand down] and they cut through all the tape,” said Denver Mills, Team Leader at the Concord, Calif. VA Vet Center and founder and executive chair of East Bay Stand Down.

“We have a target of placing 20 percent of Veterans into some sort of supportive program. We typically come close to meeting that every time.”

VA offers several permanent, transitional and temporary housing programs to Veterans. The Department of Housing and Urban Development and VA Supported Housing (HUD-VASH) Program provides permanent housing and ongoing case management treatment services. VA also provides funding to community-based agencies providing transitional housing or service centers for homeless Veterans through the Grant and Per Diem (GPD) Program.

Looking beyond immediate health care needs is a mission established by Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki in his five-year plan for ending homelessness among Veterans.

“We’re doing everything we can to make the stand downs more in line with the goals and objectives to meet the five-year plan,” said Robert Hallett, National Coordinator for Healthcare for Homeless Veterans Program.

Enrollment means eliminating a little paperwork or an extra phone call, getting the Veteran that much closer to finding a housing solution, Hallett explained.

Bringing the services to the Veteran

From chaplains to dentists, a homeless Veteran can find support for all their health and wellness needs at a stand down.

The event originated in San Diego to offer care and service to Vietnam Veterans. Since that first three-day event in 1988, VA Medical Centers have participated in nearly 200 stand downs annually.

people at tables
Military personnel help homeless Veterans fill out paperwork at the 2010 East Bay Stand Down.
Photo courtesy of Concord VA Vet Center.

Providing a brief respite from the hardships of life on the street, stand downs are a welcome relief to many homeless Veterans. Most are one-day events packed with resources, health screenings, job training, and supplies. VISN 8 Network Homeless Coordinator Dan Robbin calls it merely one part of the continuum of care services.

“For Veterans who have been out for a long time, it’s a trust issue,” Robbin said. “For them to see that the community and the VA care enough to put on an event like this, that’s important to them.

“Sometimes [the stand down] is like a safe haven and they just let down their guard.”

The Miami VA Medical Center worked with a dozen community organizations to offer services to 200-plus Veterans at their September 18th stand down.

Veterans were transported to the National Guard Armory in Broward County, where they were served breakfast and lunch while enrolling in VA programs.

“A local nursing school was doing health screenings and a local barber donated his services,” said Supervisor Social Worker Beth Wolfsohn. The sleeping bags, socks and other surplus supplies donated by the DOD were a big favorite among the Veterans.

Coordinating for this single day took several months of planning and several days to set up. Weather and volunteers’ work schedules had to be considered, but the impact of the event was clearly evident.

Connecting with a Veteran in need

From 2008 to 2009 the number of Veterans served by stand downs increased by 40 percent from 30,341 to 42,382.

Providing aid without fostering a dependent relationship is a difficult role to fill, but making a connection is the first challenge.

“Typically, you have people come in and they’ll be drunk the first day and they may be drunk the second day,” said Mills. “But the third day they’ll be sober and the fourth day they’ll be sober and we can get them help. For some guys, that’s the longest time they have been sober in years.”

Involving active duty service men and women is another way to connect, Mills said. A color ceremony is held in the evenings and when the flag officers visit with the homeless Veterans their conversations often start with, ‘You earned this and we’re doing this to help you in any way we can.’

“It’s eye-opening to see their eyes opening,” said Hallett of the stand downs he has participated in. “It’s humbling to see how much of an impact we can make with an individual who is in the greatest need. To see how much they become aware of the help available to them.”

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  Housing Support Services