photographs by Samantha Larson
This past weekend, the Edward Hines Jr. VA hospital hosted Stand Down 2011 for homeless veterans at the General Jones Armory (5200 S. Cottage Grove in Hyde Park). Volunteers from the Veterans Administration and private charities offered help, rest, and entertainment to struggling vets. At night, veterans were invited to reserve a cot inside the armory.
The phrase “stand down” is a military term referring to the removal exhausted troops from the battlefield to a secure location for rest and recovery. The Stand Down for homeless vets was created in San Diego in 1988 by two Vietnam veterans. Since then, it has grown into a series of nation-wide, semi-annual events of various sizes. It’s a chance for struggling veterans to get some much needed care and comradery.
Veterans came from all across the city, lining up in the morning to register and receive an orange bracelet. A volunteer walked around the line pepping up the guys like a movie drill seargent. They were from many walks of life; but the majority were male African American Vietnam vets, and most were not technically homeless, just struggling to get by. The mood was jovial and friendly. The guys seemed happy to see each other. As one told me, “Vets like other vets.” They’re like members of an extended family with a shared history of hardship, survival, and heroism.
A big white tent lined with tables offered services from private charitable organizations and government organizations including local representatives from the Veteran’s Administration. These included housing and job opportunities, as well as physical and mental health assistance. There were homeless outreach groups like Featherfist (“power and purpose”), and Streetwise Magazine (to which I am a contributor), disability assistance from groups like Access Living, counseling from Vet to Vet, religious organizations like Operation Freedom Inc and Catholic Charities, even a hospice group, Vitas, offering “quality end-of-life care” for aging Veterans. As Inner Voice representative Pamela Perry told me, “All they have to do is be willing, and we will help them.” Many veterans waited in a long line to receive donated phones and there were a few computers set up by the Rainbow Push Coalition table.
There was also barbershop tent. One man told me he’d been waiting for three hours for a haircut and a shave. Another tent offered services for female vets, an increasingly visible demographic.
Inside the armoury, there were tables of clothing donations and a few books. Meals were served, including a “to-go” sack lunch on Saturday. One man, observing Ramadan, filled a bag with fruit to save for sun-down. The vets were given Stand Down shirts and hats with their branch of service (“Army”, “Navy”, etc.) printed on them. On Saturday, the military issued gear to the vets including clothing and rucksacks.
There were a few dedicated doctors and nursing tirelessly working through the day to provide medical care and eye exams. One medic tried to get the vets to come inside when it got too hot during the day on Friday.
There were volunteers of all ages, veterans and civilians, men and women, wearing green “Stand Down” t-shirts. They seemed to never sit down and or stop smiling. Some walked around outside with trays of muffins and iced tea. One woman told me that she is disabled and cannot work, so she spends as much time as she can volunteering, helping veterans.
Folk singer Kelly Trudell, whose album “Vigilante” is a tribute to the troops, performed out in the field. Her songs both pay homage to soldiers and express the heartaching brutality of war. In Cold Sweat, her hauntingly beautiful voice tells the story of her uncle, who upon returning home from ‘Nam with “shrapnel in his hip,” was spat at (“That’s the thanks he got,”). Her song documents the night terrors, guilt, and bad memories he lived with and couldn’t share with his loved ones.
Later, there was a DJ booth booming tunes across the park. Some vets told me they were going to have a barbecue on Saturday.
I met so many veterans, and every single one of them was kind, respectful, and easy-going. They carried themselves with great dignity, even in the face of the sometimes embarrassing hardships of poverty and aging. Some had mental health issues, others struggled with physical disabilities. Some older men walked with the help of a cane. One cheerful man waiting for a haircut, legless in a wheelchair, pulled up his shirt to show me a recent scar, saying they had to “sew up” his stomach.
Will Lockhart, who keeps busy hustling oils among other ventures, took the names of other vets in a notebook to start his own outreach. There was a man wearing a Vietnam Veterans Against the War t-shirt and rainbow suspenders, a Marine in a cowboy hat and leather vest he’d made himself. I chatted with one man about German beer. There was a young female veteran who was making a documentary about the challenges faced by homeless women vets.
Floyd Stevenson, aka Jafar (“I’m a Muslim”) told me, “We were children. I was 19. They called us baby-killers, and all these other superlatives. . . It was so wild, we didn’t have much control over it- we were just kids! Once we got older, we understood what we were going through. . . It took me a while before I started to talk about it.” This is a common refrain.
Alan Thomas, local radio DJ (of The People’s Radio on WHPK), Army veteran, and possessor of a magnificent head of silver dreads, told me, “I meet a lot of great people [in the military]. It’s one of the few places where there’s almost instantaneous bonding. It truly is brothers and sisters in arms.” On the negative side, he said, he felt the system was, “Vile…inflexible, dogmatic, and close-minded. . . You do what we tell you whether it’s right or wrong.” That sentiment led him to terminate his service, a decision he calls one of his few great regrets, “My ego got the best of me.” Thomas was at the Stand Down because he had refused to participate in the re-certification process for his subsidized income for “personal reasons,” in part because he felt the questions they ask (“How do you wash yourself?” for example) are invasive. He is currently living under threat of eviction.
All the volunteers I talked to said the same thing: “No veteran should be homeless. We owe them more.” And they’re right. I don’t give a shit if a veteran did horrible things, I don’t care if the war was unjust. It’s pretty easy to sit in judgement of somebody from the comfort of home. It is a lot harder to survive in a war zone. That’s why I call them heroes, to me it’s not a trite term and not one I use lightly. The men and women who are brave and dedicated enough to put themselves in life-or-death situations, whatever the reason or result, on behalf of the rest of us deserve our respect and they deserve our help if they need it. It was wonderful to see so many people gathering to give them that. It’d be even better to see more next year.