For Army veteran Wilson Rice, Jr., the Winterhaven Homeless Stand Down held on January 12 was more than just a day of free support services for homeless and at-risk veterans.
“I also came to socialize with people,” said Rice, Jr., who spent three years homeless before finding government housing. “It’s a great way to see people you haven’t seen in awhile.”
The annual event, now in its 19th year, is a daylong drive put on by the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) that brings together an array of health care and social service providers to support members of the District’s veteran community struggling with homelessness. Held at the District’s VA Medical Center, this year’s event saw some 70 organizations provide over 500 veterans with services ranging from medical and mental health assistance to housing leads, hot meals and haircuts.
“Any facet that deals with the human existence, they have it covered,” praised Rice, Jr.
Though the event traditionally focuses on emergency care such as food, clothing and medical aid, VA Medical Center Supervisor Brian Hawkins says a new prevention component was added this year.
“For the first time in the 19 years of this stand down we have on-site job offers.”
Three separate organizations attended the event looking to hire veterans. Hawkins said the VA was hoping that 70 veterans would receive job offers by the end of the day.
“This is truly a milestone for our organization,” Hawkins said. “If you can get veterans work, you can potentially prevent them from being homeless.”
After registering in the lobby, veterans and their families spread out through the medical center, traveling to the various clinics along predetermined routes. Each veteran was given a checklist of service stops that he or she was required to make before being eligible for the free lunch and comfort kit.
Rice, Jr., who took about an hour to complete his rounds, called the process a “well-oiled machine.”
“It’s run very efficiently,” he said. “I have no complaints at all.”
Medical checks included rapid HIV testing, dental and eye screenings, blood pressure checks and Hepatitis C, flu and pneumonia shots. These preventative health screenings are important, said Hawkins, because they “open up the door” for veterans.
“Many people don’t feel like they need to come to the VA hospital until they need massive medical attention,” he explained. “But if we can get them in here and catch [health issues] early, we can prevent that.”
Non-medical stops included social services, housing organizations and employment counseling.
Roosevelt Smith, a 26-year Air Force retiree and member of the Disabled American Veterans was on-hand to donate funding to the VA. He expressed the significance of helping former service members.
“It’s important to show up and support fellow vets, especially those that are struggling with homelessness.”
The Winterhaven stand down is one of many such events put on throughout the country, and has become part of a national campaign by the VA to end veteran homelessness by 2015. In 2011, 220 stand downs were held, during which over 27,000 volunteers provided service to nearly 46,000 veterans.
Statistics suggest the VA’s efforts are having an impact. A 2012 national point-in-time homeless count estimated that 62,619 veterans were homeless on a single night in January, a 17 percent decline since 2009.
The campaign is continuing to gain momentum in the DC area, where Hawkins said this year’s Winterhaven boasted all-time highs in both volunteer and veteran turnout.
“This thing is growing. The more awareness we get out there the better position we’ll be in to eradicate veteran homelessness.”