By Mike Lewis

“A hand up. Not a hand out.”

Such is the philosophy of the homeless veterans Stand Down. A collaborative effort amongst the local Veteran Affairs, military units and community, Stand Down has been providing support to homeless veterans for a quarter-century. According to the Department of VA Web site, Stand Down has proven effective in helping more than 200,000 veterans and their families in more than 100 cities nationwide.

And it all started in San Diego.

In 1988, Jon Nachison and Robert Van Keuren, veterans themselves and working at the Veterans Village of San Diego, recognized the homeless veterans problem when no one else did. They remembered the military stand down afforded to combat units in Vietnam: the troops would return to the base camp for rest and relaxation, getting a respite from the rigors of war. They believed it could work in San Diego.

They were right.

“In the ‘80s, Robert Van Keuren and I were involved in providing programs to vets,” Nachison related in a telephone interview. “Most of the people coming into the agency were basically saying they were living on the street…it started to become clear that there was a problem here that nobody had recognized. Homeless vets weren’t on the radar.”

Thus, Nachison and Van Keuren realized they had “…to level the playing field for the people living on the street and at the same time send a message to the community ‘hey, there’s a problem here that nobody’s talking about.’” That first meeting with providers and veterans in Balboa Park helped clear up stereotypes and misperceptions about the homeless. It also gave hope to the veterans themselves. “It was a good connection…it empowered [the veterans] and it helped them to feel like they were a part of the process,” Nachison remembered. “And for us it validated what we thought would work because there was an alignment between our plans and what the homeless vets were talking about.”

From July 13 to 15, at the upper athletic field of San Diego High School, the Veterans Village of San Diego will host the event for the 25th year, providing services such as health screenings, food and clothing. The Stand Down is a chance for homeless veterans to get a break from their new battleground – the mean streets. In San Diego, VVSD Chaplain Darcy Pavich has been coordinating Stand Down for the past 13 years. Her learning curve was steep.

“The coordinator of Stand Down decided to retire from Veterans Village of San Diego just a month and a half before the next Stand Down was to take place, and I was asked if I would be willing to carry it through for that year,” Pavich wrote in an email. “Not fully knowing what that meant and wanting to help a program I fully believed in, I said I would. One year turned into 13 as the coordinator.”

The homeless veteran numbers are staggering, albeit different per organization and agency.

Approximately 25 percent of all homeless are veterans. The National Coalition for the Homeless official Web site estimates “there are 100,000 homeless veterans on any given night in the VA Support Network.” Neil Donovan, the organization’s executive director, acknowledged the national homeless veterans estimate by VA officials is considerably lower, 76,000 as of this year, but cautions there are other homeless veterans whom are under the radar and not being tracked. According to the Regional Task Force on the Homeless 2011 report, there were approximately 1,600 homeless veterans in San Diego County alone.

Pete Dougherty, Director of Homeless Programs for the VA, did not respond to an email request for comment on this disparity in numbers.

While Stand Downs of varying lengths have materialized in cities across the country, Nachison finds three days to be optimum: “It’s kind of a magic number…three days gives a chance to build community and building community is as important as anything else that we do…We’re really trying to bring the best out of the people that come in, and a lot of time that takes connection with other people. And three days became, I think, the sweet spot.”

Stand Down 2011 assisted 1,003 homeless veterans and their family members, an event high and an increase of 56 from 2010. This total includes 56 women veterans, and 24 children under the age of 12. Pavich says these numbers grow every year and unfortunately she expects to “see upwards of 1,000 participants” for 2012.

This is the daunting challenge that Nachison and Pavich face. Fortunately, community involvement has remained strong. A record 3,683 volunteers were involved last year.

“Volunteers are overwhelming!” Pavich, a veteran herself, said. “We are blessed with a community who wants to serve and wants to make a difference.” Pavich went on to say the volunteer procedures have been “revamped” in order to better accommodate the army of volunteers while ensuring maximum efficiency of the support they provide.

Naval Medical Center employee Doreen Rekoski, 54, a Phoenix, AZ native, now living in Chula Vista, volunteered last year at the medical clinic tent’s “intake table,” registering veterans whom were to be seen for medical treatment. She was more than happy to give back to those who defended our freedom and way of life. Still, she was not sure who was better off for having gone through Stand Down. “It would be hard to see who received the greater blessing,” Rekoski said. “Me, or the veterans with whom I interacted.”

She believes in Stand Down and the message it delivers. “The Stand Down gives veterans a chance to get on their feet….and have a safe haven in the storm, if only for a weekend,” Rekoski says. “It is also a way to restore to them some dignity.”

Restoring dignity is key at Stand Down.

One method for this is the squad leader selection process. While two volunteers per tent are trained before Stand Down to become facilitators for their respective tent, it falls to the veterans themselves to decide their leadership. “Middle of the first day each tent elects two of its members to be squad leaders,” Nachison, now the director of psychology at Paradise Valley and Bayview hospitals said. “During the rest of the event I will work with those squad leaders to manage the community.”

The Stand Down is the largest intervention tool of the VVSD, and maximum effort is expended. Pavich says over 100 organizations contribute, including San Diego Superior Court; the San Diego Lions Club; and active duty service members of the Navy and Marine Corps. Two areas in which further assistance is needed are logistics (set up and tear down), and overnight security from a week before through two days after Stand Down.

With San Diego being a popular city to relocate to, it is the largest separation point for active duty service members. This formula contributes to the growth of homeless veterans in San Diego. Pavich explains: “Many do not desire to go home…and San Diego is an attractive place to stay. It is also expensive, has high unemployment.” Pavich went on to say that despite the leadership skills developed by these service members, their relatively young age pigeon holes them into entry-level, low paying jobs, sometimes to the detriment of their family situation. “Most of them have young families and minimum wage is what they are offered.”

The increase in homeless Iraq and Afghanistan veterans at the Stand Down is painfully evident to Pavich.

“Yes, and yet we know there are more in need of Stand Down than actually come to Stand Down,” Pavich laments. “We have taken steps that are working to be more inviting to our younger veterans.”

In San Diego, Stand Down has support from the highest level of city government. Reached for comment, Mayor Jerry Sanders emailed via his spokesman “The organizers of Stand Down have done a phenomenal job reaching veterans in need. This event is a tremendous resource that does so much to help those who have bravely defended our nation.”

Volunteers for the 2012 VVSD Stand Down are asked to visit http://www.vvsd.net in April when new procedures will be made available. Help lift up those who have borne the scars of battle.

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