Jonelle Draughn is the Program Coordinator of the Mental Health Homeless Programs at the Minneapolis VA Health Care System. At their most recent Stand Down in Minneapolis in early August, 855 veterans were served.

Draughn says that, “It’s an amazing experience to see so many Veterans in one place and be able to get them connected to a variety of services in a short period of time. The goal is for our Veterans to get the help they need with minimal barriers. Sometimes the impact of Stand Down is remarkable in a Veteran’s life…we may see a Veteran who never received VA care before get easily connected to our program, and then go into our supportive permanent housing (HUD VASH). It’s also our community providers coming together to make it a success.”

There to help the Vets at the Stand Down were experts in legal affairs, including a Stand Down court, family law and civil law. Over 40 percent of the Veterans at the Stand Down had legal issues.

Providers were also available to explain VA Benefits, community benefits and referral information to government officials and agencies.

Vets were also assisted with employment and education information and Health and Wellness support, including over 200 pairs of reading glasses handed out and over 200 veterans receiving acupuncture.

As always, the Stand Down provided homeless Vets haircuts, hot meals, clothing, and of course, health care. Of the Veterans attending, 40 percent were Vietnam era veterans, 10 percent Gulf War era and 7 percent OIF/OEF. Significantly, 67 percent reported a disability.

VA Clinic at Fort Snelling Stand Down

The Minneapolis VA Health Care System also operated a VA Medical Clinic at the Homeless Veteran Stand Down at Fort Snelling in August.

Approximately 284 Veteran patients were seen for basic health care screening, including glucose and HIV testing with a routine physical exam and discussion with a provider.

Four VA staff assisted with a joint VA-DoD effort which included 20 local Air Force and Navy Reserve and Guardsmen who supplemented VA Clinic operations. Ten new patients were identified as eligible for care and enrolled at the site. Three patients were also consulted for care at the Medical Center and two were identified for emergency care.

According to David Adriansen, VA Clinic Manager, “A VA Clinic had not been operated in this manner in years past, and this set the benchmark for future Stand Downs.”

For some homeless Veterans, a Stand Down means a hot meal and a haircut.

For others, it’s a day that turns their life around.

In times of war, a Stand Down means a break from the battles. For some Veterans who fought those battles and came home to fight other conflicts in their private lives, struggles that left them lost and homeless, a Stand Down can be a chance to embark on the road back to their lives.

“Vets are always so thankful and appreciative that we can get them a bed, give them a meal, help them regain their hope and pride.”

— Lisa Pape, National Director, VHA Homeless Programs

For homeless Vets, a Stand Down is a break from the street, the hunger, the despair, a time to connect with other Vets, a time to find out what’s available to get them off the street and help them return to a life they once knew. VA is working hard to get as many homeless Veterans to as many Stand Downs as possible.

Lisa Pape runs the VHA Homeless Program and is confident that, “Stand Downs provide hope for our Veterans. It tells them VA cares and there are services available to help them.

“Vets are always so thankful and appreciative that we can get them a bed, give them a meal, help them regain their hope and pride.

“We have a great call center to help homeless Veterans. I hope that family members, community agencies, or just anyone who wants to help a homeless Veteran will pass this number along — 1-877-424-3838.”

Stand Downs are one-to-three day events providing health screenings, VA and Social Security benefits counseling, and referrals to a variety of other necessary services, such as housing, employment and mental health and substance abuse treatment.

The original Stand Down for homeless Veterans was modeled after the Stand Down concept used during the Vietnam War to provide a safe retreat for units returning from combat operations.

“A sense of hope”

Pape, who organized Stand Downs for Medical Centers, describes the atmosphere at the events as, “Very busy, very dynamic, with a great feeling of welcoming. There is a pervasive sense of hope by the Vets that there is a way out of their situation.

“Most of the Vets at Stand Downs are Vietnam and post-Vietnam Vets but we are also starting to see some Veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Stand Downs are intended to be collaborative, grassroots events coordinated between local VAs, other government agencies, and community agencies which serve homeless Veterans. In addition to this coordination role, staff from local VA facilities typically provide volunteer support for local Stand Downs particularly in health screening, triage and services, mental health assessments and referrals, and increasingly, screening and referrals for housing placements.

Pape, National Director of the VHA Homeless Programs, is very passionate about her job and gets emotional when talking about her goals. “Any homeless Vet on the street is a travesty. We have to end that. I have the privilege and honor to help those Vets get the help they need. I couldn’t work in a better place.”

Daughter of an Army Veteran, Pape knew from graduate school that she wanted to work with Veterans. “I was hired by the VA right after school and have always worked in the homeless program.”

Specific services typically provided at a Stand Down include:

– Shelter

– Meals

-Personal care (haircuts, personal care supplies, clothing)

– Picture ID services

– Health care screening (HIV/AIDS, TB, Hepatitis C, etc.)

– Health care services (provided by health care professionals)

– Eye care

– Dental care

– VA benefits

– General benefits counseling (Social Security, Food Stamps, local health and human services)

– Substance abuse counseling/recovery groups

– Mental health counseling

– Legal services

– Employment services (job referrals, employment counseling)

– Housing services (referrals to programs)

– Spiritual services

– Activities to empower homeless Veterans and create a “community” (town meetings, tent leaders, open mike, entertainment, graduation).

$20 Million Dollars Worth of Help

Since 1994, Operation New Hope (ONH) in Hillsborough, NJ, has served as the distribution hub for surplus clothing and materials supporting homeless Veteran Stand Downs. For this current year to date, ONH has processed, sorted, stored and shipped materials valued at $20,670,124 to 112 Stand Down events nationwide.

Last year, while most VA Medical Centers had previously held Stand Downs, there were 13 sites that held their first Stand Down. Stand Downs were held in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

The total number of Veterans served during 2010 Stand Downs was 44,325. Of these individuals, 40,729 (92 percent) were male Veterans, and 3,596 (8 percent) were female Veterans. In addition, 5,905 spouses/companions and 1,790 children of Veterans attended, for a total of 52,020 Veterans and family members served.

The Veterans served at recent Stand Downs reflect the challenges faced by our newer generation of Veterans. Of the 512 Veterans who participated at the Winterhaven Homeless Veterans Stand Down held in Washington, DC this past January, 37 were women Veterans and six were from the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq (OEF/OIF/OND).

Stand Downs are very dependent on volunteer support to be successful. More than 27,000 volunteers supported Stand Downs during 2010, an average of 141 volunteers per event.

There is a Stand Down almost every week somewhere in America. The full schedule is posted on the VA website.