BY DALE SPRUSANSKY
Continuing its effort to end veteran homelessness by 2015, the Department of Veterans Affairs hosted its sixteenth annual Winterhaven Stand Down for Homeless Veterans at the Washington, D.C., VA Medical Center on January 21. Throughout the day, nearly 460 homeless and at-risk veterans received an array of services, including medical screenings, housing and employment assistance, legal counseling, and food and clothing supplies. Seventy agencies and community groups joined with the VA to provide services.
Some 980 homeless veterans are believed to be living in the Washington, D.C., area. The annual Winterhaven Stand Down plays an essential role in providing for their needs. Despite the VA’s recent announcement that homelessness among veterans declined nearly 12 percent between January 2010 and January 2011, the stand down demonstrated that meeting the physical and mental health needs of veterans is a continuing struggle.
Acknowledging the importance of events such as Winterhaven, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki spent the morning touring the facility and receiving an overview of services that were being offered. Engaging volunteers and veterans alike, Shinseki, a retired four-star general, took plenty of time to shake hands and chat as he navigated the building.
Veterans at Winterhaven could choose from among many services. Somesuch as an HIV informational briefing, flu shots, and women’s health screeningswere mandatory. Upon completing these mandatory tasks, veterans could collect what many referred to as “the goodies”: clothing, boots, haircuts, and, for the women, manicures. Attendees were also encouraged to take advantage of other services, such as blood pressure and cholesterol checks, mental health services for individuals suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or substance abuse, HIV screenings, eye and dental exams, and information on veterans organizations.
Billy Mitchell, who was stationed in Germany during the 1970s, described the medical services provided at the stand down as “one of the best things I’ve come across.” Mitchell, who has asthma, high blood pressure, and diabetes, explained that the medical supplies he receives from Winterhaven are “helping me stay out of the hospital.” He also said that he enrolled in the Compensated Work Program, which helps veterans get jobs, while attending a previous stand down. Grateful for the services he receives at the stand down, Mitchell said he wished the event were more widely promoted: “I think they should get the community involved more so that everybody knows they offer this.”
While the event ran rather smoothly and veterans such as Mitchell were largely satisfied with the stand down’s services, many became frustrated by the long line to receive boots and clothing. In fact, about halfway through the day, staff announced to a dismayed crowd that boots and clothes in several sizes were in short supply. While many said the long wait was worth the payoff, others left without picking up any clothing.
Nonetheless, most were pleased with the event. Veteran Donald Mayer quipped that his only complaint was that the cafeteria did not offer seconds for lunch.
Aware of how helpful the stand down is, many veterans commented that such events should occur more often. “Some people need the health screening every six months,” Mayer said, and he suggested the stand down be offered at least twice a year. The event is held just once a year, and one man who had just received his allotment of clothing complained, “This ain’t nothin’ but a drop in the bucket.”
While receiving much-needed assistance brought a sense of contentment, at least for the time being, to many at the stand down, for some the event also brought back difficult memories. Butler Clifton, a veteran who served two years in Vietnam, still struggles to come to terms with his military experiences. Seemingly unable to answer a question regarding Winterhaven without referring to Vietnam, Clifton said he is still scarred by the reception he and his fellow Vietnam vets received upon returning home.
“We didn’t get ticker tape parades. All we got was people calling us baby killers,” said Clifton, who proudly and frequently proclaimed his patriotism. Teary-eyed and emotional, he pointed to his pin lapel and proclaimed, “Never leave a vet behind.” Emotionally torn, Clifton got up from his seat and quickly left the room. He had had enough.
Butler Cliftonneglected for too long and overwhelmed by demonsin many ways epitomizes the challenge the VA faces.
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