Comrades 'stand down' for homeless vets

Outreach event in Uptown helps with housing, jobs

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There were popcorn and snowcones, free haircuts, gospel, Christian rock music and bongo drums, but the festive air at Saturday's "Stand Down" service fair masked a serious purpose: to get homeless veterans housed, healthy and employed.

Or, as David Eagle put it, to "reach out and bring them home."

"There are so many homeless individuals who come here to get something to eat, or get a haircut, or to listen to the music, who haven't come home yet," the 63-year-old former Army colonel said as crowds of people, most of them men, thronged under white tents in the parking lot at Shepherd's Heart Church on Pride Street, Uptown.

"So many of them are still in Vietnam, or Iraq -- or at least in their minds they are -- and we're using this event to let them know they can come home," added Mr. Eagle, who helps veterans cut through bureaucratic red tape.

Easier said than done: many men and women who served in the armed forces before hitting rough patches in their lives don't know they're eligible for services and benefits.

Or if they do know, they don't want to ask for help, added Linda Crawford, a social worker at "Stand Down 2010" -- which, in military jargon, refers to fresh troops caring for exhausted combat troops off the battlefield.

"This is no handout, but they're embarrassed about it," Ms. Crawford said.

Still, about 300 veterans signed up for services at this year's community outreach event -- up from about 250 last year, said one of its organizers, Bob Rosswog of the Veterans Leadership Program of Western Pennsylvania, which provides housing, employment and other supports.

More of them were women with children, who had become homeless after the most recent recession, noted Georgette Powell, of the Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

Joyce Maciak, an Air Force veteran, had a rough entry into civilian life in 1980, serving time for robbery three months after her discharge.

She pulled her life back together -- "I just got my 7-year-sobriety coin," she said proudly -- and now works for the National Alliance of Mental Illness, which is starting its first program on Sept. 10th for veterans' families at Veterans Place of Washington Boulevard in Larimer.

"But there aren't as many services aimed at women as there should be," she added.

Nonetheless, virtually anyone who served in the U.S. military and received an honorable discharge could sign up Saturday for medical exams, legal services, food, showers, housing support, employment assistance and other help. There were even free bags handed out containing personal hygiene items, clean socks and underwear.

Some of the faces were young.

"They look like they're OEF or OIF," said organizer Beverly Venderhorst, referring, in military shorthand, to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan or Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq.

"But I also had one fellow today who served in Vietnam who had never registered for benefits before," said Ms. Venderhorst, a Navy veteran who works with Veterans Justice Outreach, a federal Department of Veterans Affairs program assisting people involved in the court system.

The younger veterans "remind me of me," mused Ken Ford, 53, who recalls leaving the Army in 1975 "confused and bewildered," not knowing what was available for him, and not getting help for his alcoholism until nine years ago. "Today it's a lot better for these guys than it was," said Mr. Ford.

But another man, sitting on a fence in a red shirt that read "Marines," shook his head.

John Paylor, 55, said intensive community outreach events like this one will have to increase in number, given the coming influx of veterans -- male and female -- from the Afghan and Iraq wars. He had to serve only one tour of combat duty, he noted, "while these soldiers have to do several, and they're coming back really burnt out.'

He hadn't seen that many young faces at Saturday's event, "but it's early.

"And I'm telling you," he said, "these are the ones we have to be looking out for, because they're coming."


Mackenzie Carpenter: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949.


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