Just over a week ago, churches, businesses and schools gathered to thank local veterans for their service in celebration of Veterans Day.
But for the homeless veterans of Northeast Georgia, it was just another day of battling poverty, hunger and the elements.
“We want to make sure that (homeless veterans) are not forgotten about,” said Ken Mason, the service officer at the Flowery Branch American Legion Post 328. “They served their country, and every now and then we all fall on bad luck, and so we just want to reach out and let them know we’re here.”
Thanks to donations from local businesses and members of the community, Post 328 was able to partner with other organizations to put on its second annual Stand Down event at St. John Baptist Church on E.E. Butler Parkway in Gainesville.
In addition to handing out warm and canned food, coffee, clothes, blankets and shoes to homeless vets, officials offered counseling on Veterans Affairs benefits, finances and employment, plus health screenings.
Piles of coats, mounds of blankets and bowls of warm soup were the most popular items offered to vets who filled St. John Baptist’s parking lot.
Post 328 put out fliers and sent envoys to several areas in Gainesville where the homeless are known to congregate to spread word about the event.
The Stand Down event was scheduled to begin at 10 a.m., but there already were people in line at 8:30 a.m.
“We’ve been overwhelmed by the response,” said Mason, a Vietnam veteran. “We don’t plan on taking anything back with us. We want (the veterans) to take as much with them as they can.”
The chief goal of the event, besides helping homeless vets endure winter, was to register them with Post 328 or another organization to address their needs long-term.
“We think (the homeless veterans at the Stand Down event) is only a small population of the vets, but we’re just reaching out and hopefully we’ll spread the word,” Mason said.
About 12 percent of the adult homeless population in the United States has served in the military, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.
Women Veterans Social Justice, a nonprofit national organization dedicated to helping female veterans, was one of the groups on hand to distribute bags of toiletries. WVSJ is dedicated to serving one of the most at-risk and yet chronically overlooked segments of the homeless veteran population.
“Women do not identify with being a veteran very easily,” said Teresa Lambert, WVSJ’s Northeast Georgia Ambassador. “Our communities are not set up to recognize women veterans. If (women) go around wearing veterans’ hats, then we’re just looking for attention.”
That inability to identify herself as a veteran prevented Lambert from getting the mental health services she needed after retiring from a 10-year career in the Air Force. A Desert Storm veteran, Lambert says that disconnect is part of what stops other women from finding resources to prevent homelessness on their return to civilian life.
An estimated 55,000 women are among the country’s homeless vets, according to a 2009 study on Veteran Homelessness by HUD and the VA. The study concluded female veterans are more likely to be homeless than men. They are also four times more likely to be homeless than female nonveterans.
Homeless female veterans also are less likely to go to a shelter, where there is a higher risk for sexual assault, trauma they may have experienced before.
A 2011 report in Newsweek concluded female soldiers are more likely to be sexually assaulted by a comrade than killed in combat.
“If a woman has already been through a trauma like that, they’re less likely to go to a shelter,” Lambert said.
Others may avoid going to a shelter for family reasons.
“Women, we come with children,” said Lambert, a single mother. “I’ve not known many shelters set up to accommodate a family, and they’re always very short term. It’s never long term.”
The Disabled Americans Veterans Auxiliary was present at the Stand Down event to hand out coats and other cold weather clothing. Jo Ann Whidden, commander of DAVA’s local branch, said as temperatures drop, the number of disabled veterans living on the streets in Hall County increases.
“We’re seeing more and more (homeless disabled veterans),” Whidden said. “With prices rising, they’re coming back to the area, maybe relocating from different locations. They might just not being familiar with this area.”
The organizations brought sign-up sheets for veterans’ contact info in hopes they’ll keep in touch. But many if not all homeless have no reliable means of communication, Mason said.
The coats and soup dwindled as more veterans passed through St. John’s parking lot as the day continued. Some changed their shoes on the bare pavement, and others took several blankets with them.
“These guys are the backbone of our country and they’re just not being treated in the way I think they should right now,” Whidden said. “If there’s a way you can help a veteran, please do it. They’ve earned our respect and they’ve got it.”