Goodwill Southern California, in partnership with a number of cities in Los Angeles County, will host on May 20 its Third Annual Veteran Stand Down for homeless veterans and their families.

The “Stand Down” is a day where homeless veterans will be welcomed throughout the county at safe places to “rest” and will receive a variety of services such as housing referrals, food, clothing, health screenings, and access to additional Veteran Affairs (VA) and Social Security benefits. Homeless veterans will also be referred to many other services including employment training and substance abuse counseling/treatment. There will also be scheduled entertainment.

A legion of volunteers from the Antelope Valley is expected to fan out across the region to provide assistance to veterans who, through various circumstances over the years, have found themselves and their loved ones without regular shelter, food and employment. The term “Stand Down” in this circumstance is used for organized community events for “at-risk” and homeless veterans and to offer a viable pathway back to civilian life for persons who may suffer from the lingering effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Goodwill Southern California has for each of the past three years served more than 500 men, women and children on these “Stand ‘Down” events by providing what they term more “practical solutions” to the daily struggles often faced by the many U.S. military members, veterans and their families.

Workshops during event will be conducted by professionals and will introduce participants to a variety of relevant topics (e.g. veteran benefits, relapse prevention, identification of Gulf War Syndrome, homeless hygiene, footcare etc.). The workshop format is said to be modeled on a “professional conference” to maximize time and professional support so that each participant feels encouraged and empowered. Volunteers will assist with serving food, circulating as hosts, clothing selection, re-stocking supplies, conducting inventories … and even giving a haircut or two all designed to provide a day of service to those who have worn the military uniform abroad but have returned to civilian life badly in need of assistance.

Last year, hundreds of volunteers dispersed across the county to count the homeless and found that more than one in 10 is a veteran. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) conducts bi-annual counts of homeless persons and has reported that L.A. County has the nation’s largest population of homeless veterans; the 2015 Point-in-Time (PIT) Count—the procedure utilized by the LAHSA to track homeless persons—is scheduled for public release at the end of April. The PIT gauges progress in achieving the goals set by federal authorities in the quest to end veteran homelessness by the end of this year.

L.A. County leads nation

The LAHSA last year reported that there are an estimated 4,200 homeless veterans in Los Angeles County; other statistics tabulated by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) put the number at as high as 6,300. Nationwide, a 2014 PIT Count revealed that 49,993 veterans were homeless on a single night representing a 33-percent decline in homelessness among veterans since 2010. Last year, more than 72,000 veterans and their family members were placed in permanent housing or received services aimed at preventing homelessness.

Robert A. McDonald, secretary of Veterans Affairs, believes ending veteran homelessness is within reach, but it will take concerted efforts from both the government and private sectors to achieve the goal.

“There is no question that the goal to end veteran homelessness is within reach, and we remain laser-focused on it,” he said. “Ending veteran homelessness in America is more than hitting a number. It’s about helping communities put a system in place that can house every veteran experiencing homelessness today and prevent it in the future. I am so heartened that over 440 mayors, governors, county executives and other local officials have joined us and are committed to ending veteran homelessness in their communities.”

In January, the U.S. government agreed to settle a lawsuit in which the ACLU accused the V.A. of misusing its sprawling health campus in West Los Angeles by having empty buildings, while veterans with brain injuries and mental impairment were allegedly sleeping on the street.

The county received the nearly 400-acre parcel of land in 1888 to build a National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers; the current V.A. facility sits on the land that was part of that agreement. Much of that land was subsequently leased to outside interests that had nothing to do with veterans, and the area eventually became some of the most coveted in California with neighborhoods like Brentwood and Westwood adjoining it. The ACLU class-action lawsuit was filed in 2011 to force the federal government to honor the original agreement, with the Justice Department, in turn, arguing that the V.A. was “within its rights” to lease out the land meant for veterans. Homeowners in the area reportedly did not want more housing for homeless veterans, but had to yield to the court ruling. Today many once-empty buildings at the site are in the process of being transformed into housing for homeless veterans.

Also in January, the LAHSA announced it will receive $91.9 million in funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to help the homeless of which veterans comprise a sizable portion. This funding reportedly includes the largest new grant in the nation—$10.1 million—to build 550 units of permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless. The balance of the money is said to be directed to toward 231 other projects planned throughout the county. The grant was awarded to the Los Angeles Continuum of Care, of which the LAHSA is the lead agency, through a national competition for bonus funding.

New funding for shelters

“This $10 million in new homeless assistance funding is a strong vote of confidence by our federal partners in the work Los Angeles has undertaken to end homelessness,” said Peter Lynn, director of LAHSA. “These new projects will help more than 1,100 men, women and children move into permanent housing over the next year.”

About 10 years ago, HUD and the V.A. conducted the first comprehensive census of homeless persons and found a disproportionate number to be veterans. This population has been aging; veterans over 65 years who are homeless amounted to 42 percent in 2012 with elderly veterans found to be twice as likely to be homeless as elderly non-veterans. In 2011, another national V.A. study revealed that homeless veterans are more likely to be White, to be better educated, have reared children and, according to the study, more often found to be alcoholic rather than drug addicted. Additional risk factors such as combat exposure, wartime trauma and PTSD were said to increase the vulnerability to homelessness.

Depending on the source, more than one-half dozen local agencies charged with counting the number of homeless veterans have submitted varying counts.

The California Department of Veteran Affairs reported in 2013 that almost 11 percent of current and former service members reside in the state. The organization recently submitted to the national V.A. a Chaleng Report which is used by federal officials to determine services and needs not just in California, but for all regions that report high homeless populations. Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties were said to contain the largest population of homeless veterans totaling more than 30,000 men and women sleeping in shelters or on the street. Research conducted by the National Coalition for the Homeless has suggested that as many as 400,000 veterans—a staggering figure compared with the aforementioned LAHSA PIT Count—will experience homelessness this year, with more than half of these persons considered “chronically” homeless.

“While veterans represent about 34 percent of the general population,” the report stated, “they are over-represented in the national homeless population. More than 40 percent of homeless males are veterans and more than 3 percent of homeless women are veterans.”

Homeless veterans are younger on average than the total veteran population. The V.A. reported in 2013 that about 9 percent are between the ages of 18 and 30, and 41 percent fall between the ages of 31 and 50. This compares with only 5 percent of all veterans ranging between the ages of 18 and 30, while less than 23 percent are between 31 and 50 years. Homeless veterans, the report said, have served in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Grenada, Panama, Lebanon, the Persian Gulf War, in the Balkans (Kosovo, Bosnia), both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and the U.S. military’s anti-drug cultivation missions in Central and South America.

Roughly 40 percent of America’s homeless veterans are African American or Latino, despite these two groups of military personnel accounting for only 10.4 percent and 3.4 percent of the U.S. veteran population respectively.

Increase in young homeless veterans

The V.A. says that veterans need a coordinated effort by both government and private entities to help secure housing, nutritious meals, basic physical health care, substance abuse intervention and after care, mental health counseling and personal development and empowerment. Job assessment, training and placement, V.A. officials stress, is of the utmost importance in the transition from military to civilian life. The most effective programs are said to the community-based, non-profit organizations such as the “veterans-helping-veterans” groups now seen nationwide. These groups help with transitional housing and offer the camaraderie of living in structured, substance-free environments with fellow veterans who are succeeding and can demonstrate how to better themselves both mentally and socially.

The social transition from military back to civilian life may be another factor in the increase of incarcerated veterans. In May 2009, the Bureau of Justice released a special report on incarcerated veterans and revealed that there was an estimated 140,000 men and women held in state and federal prisons. Male veterans, the report found, were more than half as likely as other men to be in prison; the gap between veteran and non-veterans involved in the criminal justice system has reportedly been increasing since the 1980s. The U.S. Army accounted for 46 percent of American veterans, but 56 percent of those in state prison. Most state prison veterans (54 percent) reported service during a wartime era, while 20 percent saw combat duty. Six in 10 incarcerated veterans received an honorable discharge, and more than one-third of incarcerated veterans have received maximum sentences of at least 20 years, life or the death sentence.

Linda Nunez, co-founder and CEO of Loma Linda Veterans Healthcare System, explains in part the difficulty of assisting the increasing population of homeless veterans.

“It’s like the story of the boy on the beach after a storm. A man comes by and spots him picking up starfish washed up on the shore and putting them back into the water so they can live. The man asks ‘what are you doing? It’s hopeless. You can’t save them all.’ The little boy smiles, picks up another starfish and starts walking to the shore and tells the man: ‘I know I can save this one.’ We have a daunting task in assisting the men and women who served our nation. But if we can save this one, and then that one—with the help of partners—and do more than simply put a yellow sticker on our cars (“Support Our Troops”), then we’re taking real, life-changing action.”