By Lucia Viti
Next weekend, the Veteran’s Village of San Diego (VVSD) invites homeless veterans to “Stand Down” during its three-day, single-site intervention.
“Stand down” is a military term that signals war combatants to lay down their guard. In line with that concept, VVSD designed its three-decade-old event help veterans adrift with despair and immobility to reconnect with society. This year’s Stand Down will be held on June 29–July 1 at San Diego High School, located at 1405 Park Blvd. on the edge of Balboa Park.
The intervention provides eligible homeless veterans comprehensive community outreach. Assistance includes case management, recovery programming, employment counseling, facilitating the appropriate Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits, rental assistance, transportation services, health care, legal aid and emergency supplies. Reprieve from street life also includes comfortable cots, meals, hot showers, haircuts, medical check-ups and on-site courts that waive fines and fees.
“Stand Down is a life-changing and life-saving event,” said Darcy Pavich, Stand Down’s program director and former Navy chaplain. “Stand Down is not about who helps you, it’s about that help is given. We take hands and say, ‘Welcome home. What do you need from me today?’ From that, we give hope, restore dignity and help homeless veterans become people again.”
Recognized as the “most valuable outreach tool for homeless veterans” by the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, Stand Down offers respite from the daily combat of living on the streets. Veterans are met with a handshake, coffee and breakfast. Animals and possessions are stored under 24/7 protection while men, women and families are assigned to a bunker. Volunteers then escort participants to clothing tents, showers, barbers, makeovers, medical, dental and optical services.
“Our success is based on the moment veterans register,” said Kim Mitchell, president and CEO of VVSD, who lives in Uptown. “Everyone gets a goodie bag. Veterans are personally escorted to their bunks and showers and issued towels, soap and a hygiene kit. A local cosmetology university provides haircuts. Balboa Naval Medical Center provides medical services from doctors and nurses. Community partners include employment and church groups, housing organizations and rehab programs. There’s even a spot to strum a guitar.”
“Everything’s jammed packed into a community of support,” Pavich added. “For the military, it’s like going home. Shaven and clean, no one hides. These men and women walk around proudly, communicating and connecting with peers and volunteers.”
In addition, the event will feature a bouncy house, arts and crafts, blankets, stuffed animals, and games for children.
“Every child should have every opportunity in the world,” Mitchell said. “So, we help parents find the resources to get these families off the streets.”
Stand Down boasts 150 participating organizations and agencies, as well as more than 3,500 volunteers. Community service partners also include the Salvation Army, Father Joe’s Villages and People Assisting the Homeless.
“The goodness of the community comes to the forefront,” Pavich said. “There’s amazing cooperation between the VA, state and federal policies. We’re apolitical. Everyone gets involved.”
One-third of Stand Down’s committed volunteers are former homeless veterans.
“People thank us for giving them their lives back,” Pavich said. “Lives are changed and lives are saved. People become whole again. To explain Stand Down is to explain a miracle.”
San Diego touts the second largest homeless veteran population in the United States. Pavich said that returning to civilian life isn’t always easy for military veterans. Citing post-traumatic stress disorder, mental health issues and substance abuse, some veterans “spiral into a deep, dark place.”
“The military teaches you character and discipline but oftentimes, people need guidance and direction for living outside of military structure,” she continued. “Many have tried and tried and tried. Doors slam so they quit and accept their fate with discipline and regularity. ‘I live on the streets because I didn’t know what else to do,’ they say. Stand Down helps them realize that life doesn’t have to be this way.”
The majority of homeless veterans range between 50 and 60 years old; Pavich noted that this age group faces many challenges.
“Job placement is difficult at that age,” she said. “And many lack medical care to fix what most of us can as we age. Criminal and felony convicts also have a tough time. Despite rehabilitation, few [employers] want to give them a chance. We see them doing better every day but finding people to give them a chance for employment is difficult.”
Women are the largest growing group of homeless veterans. Refusing to admit their homeless status for fear of losing their children, many find themselves living in their cars.
“Women are socialized to solve the problem, not be the problem,” Pavich said. “Children are clean and cared for, but they’re living in a Volkswagen bus.”
“If plans fall through when exiting the military, San Diego’s cost of living and military paychecks don’t match,” Mitchell added. “There’s a true misconception that life on the streets is easy. But it’s not. You’re always in protective mode when you have nothing. Stand Down is a safe haven. Veterans and their families relax. San Diego’s High School upper ballfield turns into a village where everyone is good. We walk around and wave, just like we all do when walking by your neighbor’s porch.”
Pavich and Mitchell agree that Stand Down’s homeless veterans rest their burdens while “lifting themselves up to the possibilities of change.”
“Any veteran could walk into a tent, see a program and say, ‘I found my solution,” Mitchell added.
Mitchell also stressed the importance of connecting with resources and bonding with other veterans because an individual may not feel quite as homeless if they have a friend.
Despite those who return to brave the elements of street life, others who embrace the possibility of change and connect with Stand Down’s services and programs often become productive members of the community.
Success stories include a homeless veteran who attended Stand Down for 17 consecutive years. Each year, he declined to participate in a residential treatment program. At year 17, he finally accepted the offer to attend classes, therapy sessions and work with a case manager. Today, the 62-year-old is clean and sober, working a stable job, and living in an apartment.
The event ends with a graduation ceremony. According to Pavich, a renewed sense of pride is tangible after the program.
“On day one, these men and women walk in downtrodden,” she said. “On graduation day, everyone gathers at their tents and march in formation — just like they did in the military — to the stage to receive gifts and graduation hats. Although they may return to the streets, they do so coming from a place they’ve belonged. A place they’ve called home.”
Ninety-two percent of those who attend Stand Down have been honorably discharged from the military.
“Discovering how these veterans have served their country is humbling,” Pavich said. “Now on the streets, it’s the pause that says, ‘This isn’t right. No one should be living on the streets.’”
Stand Down opened its doors to homeless veterans in 1988 under the sponsorship of the Vietnam Veterans of San Diego, which was renamed the Veterans Village of San Diego in 2005. Refusing to accept America’s overwhelming number of homeless veterans as acceptable, Stand Down was conceived “for veterans, by veterans” to bridge the “physical and psychological barriers between service providers and recipients.”
The Vietnam Veterans of San Diego was established eight years prior to Stand Down. In 1981, Vietnam veterans Jack Lyon, Bill Mahedy, Randy Waite, Paul Grasso, and Russ Kelly planned a “combat assault” on the VA during a counseling session in response to the medical and psychological care awarded — or lack thereof — to their Vietnam comrades.
Moderator Father William Maheday, who just happened to be an Army chaplain, suggested channeling their anger into positive action. And indeed they did, giving birth to the Vietnam Veterans of San Diego.
In 1988, Robert Van Keuren, the organization’s then-executive director, became concerned about the increasing number of homeless veterans seeking services. Tapping into his Vietnam War “stand down” respite, he — along with Jon Nachison, the nonprofit’s then-clinical director — initiated the first Stand Down event geared to aid homeless veterans. Now more than 300 Stand Downs occur nationwide every year.
Last year, 718 out of 853 total participants were veterans. Stand Down is described as an opportunity for transformation. Staff and volunteers believe that the human spirit will triumph over extraordinary odds.
“Stand Down is one of the most meaningful three days I’ve ever experienced,” Mitchell concluded.
“Everyone, everyone is forever changed by their experience at Stand Down,” Pavich echoed.
Participants can pre-register online. Transportation to the event is also provided. For more information about the event, visit vvsd.net/stand-down.
— Reach Lucia Viti at firstname.lastname@example.org.