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Standing Up for Homeless Vets at 'Stand Downs'

by Aaron Glantz

PLEASANTON, California - More than 400 homeless veterans from across northern California relaxed in comfort at the Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton.

Nationally, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates that on any given night more than 100,000 veterans are homeless, with double that number experiencing homelessness in the course of a year. (Image: NVF News) The occasion - a "Stand Down", where the homeless veterans were given access to good food, clean clothes, showers and beds.

A group of veterans stayed in camouflage canvas tents, met with employment counselors and even made their case to superior court judges, who prescribed modest penalties in exchange for dropping charges related to failed appearances on old warrants. Such warrants often started as unpaid traffic tickets, but the charges escalated as they were ignored.

"The good thing about the East Bay Stand Down is they can get the services they need," said Army Reserve Capt. Tonya Pacheco, who helped handle logistics for the event.

"If they need counseling – whatever they need it's available to them," she said. "A lot of veterans will have the opportunity to turn their lives around."

100,000 Homeless Vets

Nationally, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates that on any given night more than 100,000 veterans are homeless, with double that number experiencing homelessness in the course of a year.

Conservatively, the National Council for Homeless Veterans estimates that one out of three homeless men sleeping in a doorway, alley or box in U.S. cities and rural communities has put on a uniform and served the country.

About half of homeless veterans served their country during the Vietnam years, and service providers say they are beginning to see disturbing numbers of veterans recently back from Iraq and Afghanistan living in their cars or couch surfing with family, friends or wherever they can crash.

According to the VA, 56 percent of homeless vets are African American, even though nearly 80 percent of U.S. military veterans are white.

As a blazing sun shone down on the fairgrounds, John Morgan sat under a large tent in the centre of the Stand Down, a computer thumb drive around his neck.

"I just got a resume made, and they gave me a flash drive," Morgan said. "I needed to get that done 'cause I wanted to go back to work."

A U.S. Army veteran, Morgan served as a medic in the burn unit at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio in the years following the Vietnam War. When he got out of the military in the early 1980s, the Vacaville native started snorting cocaine, then dealing it.

"I would work a job and save a lot of money. And then I would get a bundle of coke, and I would sell and I would use.& Inevitably, I would go into jail or get in some kind of thing with the police," he said.

This year, Morgan caught a break. An official from the Department of Veterans Affairs visited him at San Luis Obispo State Prison and told him about the Homeless Veteran Rehabilitation Programme (HVRP), a supportive housing facility on the VA campus in Menlo Park.

A month ago, when he was released from prison, Morgan went straight to the facility.

"HVRP saved my life," he said. Now he's trying to make sure he has a way to support himself once he graduates from their program.

Morgan is comparably lucky to get a space at HVRP. According to the VA, for the more than 12,000 homeless veterans in Northern California, there are only about 400 transitional housing beds.

That's why the Stand Downs are so important – for one weekend this year, every veteran who showed up got the help they needed.

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