Morgan Austin

At 7 a.m., two hours before the Winterhaven Homeless Stand Down was scheduled to begin,  a crowd of veterans was already waiting. And by the time the Jan 25 event at the VA Medical Center was over, a record 712 vets had received help of all kinds, from medical and mental health care to employment support, from housing assistance to legal counseling; from hot meals to warm clothing to new boots to  haircuts. The event, now in its 20th year, is dedicated to bringing together  government agencies, as well as local charities and businesses to provide a day of service to veterans in need.

“Seventy government agencies came together for one purpose,” is the way event coordinator Sarah Cox put it.

And every vet who braved the cold to attend had a story to tell. One of them, Walter Klik, said he had struggled with substance abuse and lost touch with his family before becoming homeless.

“Other than cold and rainy nights, I was having a ball, or at least I thought I was,” said Klik.

As his addiction deepened, so did his isolation from others. Finally, he touched bottom.

“When I last overdosed, it made me ask for help,” he said.

Thankfully, the VA Medical Center was there for him. He credited the staff with helping him on the road to recovery. Now he sees hope in his life again.

“You have to take the good with the bad and learn how to cope with it,” said Klik.  “I’m in a better place; I have a place to call home with a stove and pots and tvs… Things are better, but they aren’t great.”

Another veteran, James Peterson, also spoke of the journey out of addiction, thanks to a sobriety program he completed.

“As long as I stay away from people who bring me back to where I was, I will be fine,” said Peterson.

Addiction has contributed to the homelessness of many vets. Others have lost their housing after getting behind on bills due to employment or health problems. Lafayette Cooper said his diabetes led to troubles at work. When he lost his job, he became homeless.  His faith in God and the love of  family members have helped sustain him through his difficulties, he said.

“I go to church every Sunday and pray,” said Cooper.

He noted he was also grateful for the medical attention he received at Winterhaven. And  veteran Richard Fagus said the VA, as well as events such as Winterhaven have served as his lifelines.

“Five years after I got out the service, I became aware I could get medical services at the VA because I was a veteran,” said Fagus.  “If it weren’t for these services it would be very bad.”

Another attendee,  Eweka Johnson said he had traveled from Brooklyn, NY to come to Washington, hoping to meet President Obama to speak with him about a non-profit organization he has formed to raise awareness on issues including adolescent  obesity and bullying. Johnson said became active in the Army Reserve after losing a close friend to the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

“If I wasn’t fighting, I’d be dead already,” said Johnson.

Many of the veterans said they were drawn to Winterhaven for  medical help as well as the promise of new clothes and a warm meal. But the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs also strives to offer longer range assistance as well. Currently,  1045 local veterans are housed through the HUD-VASH program, a supportive housing program operated by the VA and the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development. And the VA has set a goal of ending homelessness among vets entirely.

Officials say that nationwide, veteran  homelessness has decreased by 24 percent since 2010 thanks to programs such as HUD-VASH. As  the annual hope and energy found at Winterhaven help to demonstrate, homeless vets defy the stereotypes, said Cox.

“People have misconceptions of the homeless veteran and they would come here and see that it’s not the case,” she said.