West L.A. Stand Down reminds hundreds of homeless military veterans that they matter

By Bliss Bowen

The West Los Angeles VA’s annual Stand Down event in October treated veterans to BBQ and brought together a number of nonprofits to help vets seeking housing connect with much-needed services

To “stand down,” in military parlance, means to relax. During combat operations, a stand down is a safe physical base to which military members can retreat and rest, receive medical care, clean up, eat, read, write letters, change uniforms, hang out with friends, and decompress.

The concept is also applied to community-wide gatherings such as the 5th Annual Veteran Stand Down, held in late October at the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center campus. VA Greater Los Angeles holds about 30 stand downs each year, but this event was 2019’s largest.

This particular Stand Down, hosted by the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System (VAGLAHS), emphasizes homeless veterans. Dozens of booths and trucks — AMVETS Thrift Store, Habit for Humanity, Higher Ground Los Angeles, Meals on Wheels, the Mindful Warrior Project, Operation Blankets of Love, Social Security, Volunteers of America, Women Vets on Point —are offering information and support, and providing free services that include a mobile food pantry, medical assessments and legal counsel.

Per VAGLAHS, an estimated 3,400 veterans experience homelessness “on any given night” in the organization’s service area, which covers about 76% of Los Angeles County plus all of Kern, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties; between October 2018 and September 2019, VAGLAHS provided services to almost 16,000 homeless veterans with more than 160,000 client visits. (That number includes formerly homeless veterans who have been placed in housing or residential treatment and are receiving VA case management as part of their recovery.)

L.A. has so many homeless people camped out by bridges, freeway ramps and beaches that we become desensitized to their presence and vulnerability as individuals. But here, respect is being paid.

VA medical staff members are checking blood pressure at first aid tables, and L.A. County Department of Mental Health’s Veteran and Military Family Program staffers are also on site for the benefit of the 723 veterans who registered for the Stand Down. (About 150 additional veterans also attended but did not register.)

Not all the veterans are homeless; some are residents or attend treatment programs on the campus. Others just have questions about their benefits, or need immunizations or clothes, or suggestions for a safe place to park the cars they sleep in at night. All veterans are welcome.

In the corner of a repurposed parking lot, pungent aromas waft from a barbecue pit, mingling with faint whiffs of smoke from the Sepulveda Basin and Tick Fires still being battled north of us. Beneath a canopied dining area, people are lounging at tables, looking around and nodding their heads. Their guarded body language and facial expressions indicate they are tired, and have been for a long time.

Now they are appreciating the opportunity to just sit, at a table, in the shade, with good food to eat and the Lowery Brothers performing for their benefit. Morning gigs are often rough, but at this moment a saxophonist, keyboardist and drummer are giving it their professional best; more players will clamber onstage later to pump up the jazz-funk-rock fusion. Stepping to the mic, a veteran from a military family declares, “Our mission is to continue to serve those who served.”

The calendar may read late October, but by 10:30 a.m. it already feels like the sweaty depths of August. It’s a relief to step into the cooler Welcome Center at a sand-colored, H-shaped building where veterans can discuss housing needs with VA representatives.

Amanda, a 32-year-old single mother who chooses not to give her last name, has just emerged from an assessment. For 10 years she was in charge of ammunition supplies with the Marine Corps, stationed in San Diego, Okinawa, and for a year in Iraq. Now she is “going back and forth between my car and my friends” in L.A. with her 7-year-old daughter. She looks poised and polished, and sounds somewhat nervous.

“When you leave the service, it’s hard to find stable housing,” she explains. “The Veterans Affairs have services to get you into housing. They get you food, [and] if you need help getting gas cards for your vehicle. So I have received those services. Right now all I need to do is stick to the course and get my housing, which I’m excited for.”

While her daughter attends school, Amanda says she is able to look for jobs in addition to running her own lash and skin care business. It’s “hard to build clientele,” she says, but she offers free services for vets.

“This whole thing is just giving me a sense of relief,” she says of the Stand Down. “It gives you hope that there is help out there. You don’t have to be afraid to ask for help because it’s here. Especially if you have anxiety or depression, this eases it a bit.”

Outside and down the sidewalk, a water station is set up just beyond the Employment Services area — three rows of booths hosted by corporations, government agencies and nonprofits interested in hiring veterans. A meat processing company representative says it’s their fourth year at the Stand Down, because they “want to increase the flow of veterans” into their ranks. Entities such as the Employment Development Department, America’s Job Center of California, Veterans Upward Bound, and 211LACounty.org are also on hand to help veterans resolve job search concerns.

Blue-shirted volunteers swarm through the multi-ethnic, multigenerational crowd handing out bottled water. One woman kneels down to place a cup of water before a man’s brindle pit bull, who thirstily laps it up. Another young woman allows strangers to pet her black, blue-eyed husky pup as she eyeballs her mother, a veteran who’s speaking with a prospective employer. Quite a few leashed, well-behaved dogs are in attendance. Organizers have provided a Pet Relief Area around the corner, and a mobile spay-and-neuter clinic and Downtown Dog Rescue are positioned near a Medicare truck.

Across Vandergrift Avenue, people wait in a long line along a canopy-covered walkway to peruse a clothing giveaway’s bins and racks. On the opposite side of a grassy expanse, a barber is shaving seated veterans while others quietly savor the shade in chairs set out beneath nearby trees. Acupuncture’s offered at a booth a few steps away.

A tall, gray-haired African-American veteran turns heads as he walks past in gleaming Navy dress whites, his dignified posture slightly troubled by a limp. A one-legged man who could pass for Carlos Santana’s cousin adjusts his black fedora as a friend pushes his wheelchair. A beret-wearing, blue-uniformed African-American veteran tips open his red Veterans Crisis Line tote while chatting with an elderly man on a motorized wheelchair whose baseball cap and long shirt sleeves shield his pink skin from the intensifying sun.

Behind them at the Westwood Rotary table, volunteer James Meyer hands a leaflet to another wheelchair-bound veteran. Meyer is a veteran of the Air Force Medical Corps.

“I served as a physician taking care of active duty Air Force personnel and also their dependents, here in the U.S.,” he explains. “And I worked for 30 years with the Veterans Administration as a physician.” Continuing to serve veterans comes naturally to him: “I’ve worked all this time with veteran patients. I love the guys.”

“People on the street appreciate just conversing with them, that we recognize them as fellow human beings,” Meyer says of veterans he’s speaking with today. “I think that’s the most important thing. The worst thing for a homeless guy on the street is to look away from him. It sends a message they’re not human.”

Overall, there were 92 vendors at this year’s Stand Down, an increase from last year’s event; staff and volunteer participation was also greater, as part of organizers’ desire to “make the Stand Down more of a collaborative effort.” They hope to expand involvement of community partners at the 2020 Stand Down.

The music stops around two o’clock. As the event winds down, a potbellied, T-shirted veteran in cargo shorts waits by the curb for a ride. “How ya doin’?” he asks, sporting one of the happiest demeanors I’ve encountered all day. I nod, and ask how things are going for him.

“Any day I’m above dirt and breathing,” he says with a smile, “I’m fabulous.”

Anyone interested in volunteering to help veterans is encouraged to call Outreach Deputy Program Coordinator Shanna Nelson at (213) 266-6429.