Stand Down offers short-term support to homeless vets, but state law calls for more

Soledad Street in Salinas has long been a gathering place for homeless residents. The veterans services officer in Salinas said that 15-20 percent of homeless residents are veterans, though it can be hard to reach them with services as they are transitory. Photo: Melissa Flores/California Health Report

Even as a Senate bill was signed into law in August requiring the California Department of Veteran Affairs to have a more comprehensive strategic plan on meeting the needs of homeless veterans, those service officers working on the ground know how hard it can be to work with a population that is often transitory.

The new state law, authored by state Senator Lou Correa of Orange County, will require the Department of Veterans Affairs to include “specified information in its strategic plan related to homeless veterans.” The bill calls for the department to analyze the methods they now use
to address the needs of homeless veterans and to review goals or objectives to determine if they will likely decrease homelessness among veterans. It also calls for staff members to determine the number of homeless veterans in the state and how many receive benefits from state or federal programs.The bill will also require the department to share the strategic plan with the chairpersons of the state Assembly and Senate Committees on Veterans Affairs. Correa serves on the Senate committee on Veterans Affairs.

Tom Griffin, the veterans service officer for Monterey County, estimated there are 900 to 1,300 homeless veterans living in the county.

“You know there are a lot of homeless running around and the issue is to identify the veterans,” Griffin said. “If we go around and see homeless, we ask if they are a veteran. I would say anywhere from 15 to 20 percent are homeless vets.”

His office, along with the support of a few dozen other nonprofits and veterans support groups, hosted a three-day Stand Down event at the Salinas Sports Complex June 19-21. The events are held throughout the nation, and the local event happens every other year. It is part of an effort to connect homeless veterans – whether they are living on the streets or living in a home with relatives because they cannot afford to live on their own – with the services available to them.

The Stand Down was coordinated between Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito counties, with transportation provided to and from the event for those outside of the Salinas area.

“It was a marvelous experience and a huge success,” Griffin said, of the event.

He estimated nearly 300 homeless veterans attended, including some female veterans and also entire families that were homeless.

“We housed them and fed them,” he said. “We had medical doctors, dentists and mental health services. We gave them clothing and sleeping bags.”

JP Tremblay, the deputy secretary for the California Department of Veteran Affairs, said many homeless veterans do not know they have access to the care.

“The homeless don’t take advantage of the services,” he said. “A lot don’t realize it is available to them. Some come back, especially women veterans, and they don’t think of themselves as veterans.”

He said that is especially true of those returning from the conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan.

“If they served in the combat zone, they get five years medical coverage provided,” Tremblay said. “A lot don’t realize that is available to them.”

The event also included access to legal representatives who could help the veterans remove misdemeanors or warrants from their records, depending on the severity of the crime.

“They can be stones around their neck,” Griffin said. “They can’t get a drivers license or apply for jobs.”

But he said it is not the easiest thing to keep track of this homeless subpopulation.

“They move with the weather so they are fairly mobile,” he said. “They have places where they go. It’s hard to be out there and hunt them down and interview them. These guys know where the services are and we are always open to them.”

The state department does have one program available that serves the needs of homeless veterans – as long as they meet age or disability requirements that call for long-term care. The state just completed construction on its eighth veterans home in the state, long-term care facilities that are meant to house aging veterans. Of the 1.9 million veterans living in California, 60 percent are 65 or older, Tremblay said.

“We try to take into consideration the veteran’s ability to survive on their own,” he said. “We look at income levels, health conditions. Homeless veterans are ones we do try to target, if they meet the criteria of being aged or disabled.”

The most recent home will open in Fresno in the coming months. Construction is completed, but it still needs to be staffed and equipped before residents can move in.

The homes serve residents that are 55 or older, or younger veterans who have long-term disabilities.

For those veterans who do not qualify for the homes, but are still homeless, Tremblay said the agency is working with the United States Department of Veteran Affairs on a five-year plan to end homelessness amongst veterans.

“It is impossible to address it with only one government agency or nonprofit,” he said. “There needs to be a collaboration; the private sector, everyone, coming together to help deal with this issue.”

He said the reasons for a veteran ending up without a home can be multifaceted. It can be something that happened during combat or something that happened after a return home. He said women who have experienced sexual trauma in the military often have a hard time adjusting. Men and women both can deal with post-traumatic stress disorder by drinking or abusing drugs. Many veterans who have military service as their only job experience have a difficult time finding work, Tremblay said, because civilian employers don’t always consider it as a “job.”

“These are some of the challenges,” he said. “It’s not one single area. They may be able-bodied, but through no fault of their own, they can’t find a job,” Tremblay, said. “What we’ve found is that there is a shortage of affordable housing. They may be able to get work, but they are not making huge incomes. They might also need to live in a situation where they can maybe get the support of other veterans.”

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