The Invisible Ones: Homeless Combat Veterans

by on April 3, 2009 · 7 comments

in Civil Rights, Economy, Health, Homelessness, Media, San Diego, Veterans


by Patty Mooney / Vision Magazine / April 2009 Issue

How many times have you passed up a sleeping figure underneath a blanket or tarp on the darkened streets of your city? Have you ever considered that this could be one of our war heroes?

This question entered my consciousness in the summer of 2007. As partners of a video production company called Crystal Pyramid Productions, my husband, Mark Schulze, and I received a call from the Veterans Administration to document the 20th Annual Stand Down in San Diego, CA.

“Stand Down,” we wondered. “What’s that?” We learned that in military parlance, a stand down is when a soldier steps away from combat operations and experiences a momentary rest and relaxation prior to heading back into the fray. Its definition has been extended to name an event which addresses the plight of homeless veterans on the streets of America.

San Diego's Stand Down

The San Diego Stand Down sustains homeless veterans for three days with hot meals, cots, showers, shaves and haircuts, plus a change of clothing. The veterans can receive medical, dental and holistic treatments, as well as counseling and legal advice from caring volunteers—all in one location. They enjoy camaraderie with fellow veterans and best of all, they don’t have to worry about the “combat” that takes place daily out on the streets.

Robert Van Keuren and Dr. Jon Nachison are the two Vietnam veterans who founded this event. Van Keuren explains in his Stand Down Manual that “Stand Down is a belief in the triumph of the human spirit over extraordinary odds. It grows out of a conviction that the overwhelming number of homeless veterans is unacceptable, and that the veteran community itself must respond. Stand Down is designed to transform the despair and immobility of homelessness into the momentum necessary to get into recovery, resolve legal issues, seek employment, access health services and benefits, reconnect with the community and get off the streets—a very tall order for a three-day event.”

These men opened our eyes to the harsh reality that we have far more homeless veterans sleeping on our streets than most Americans know about. Homeless vets make up about 25 percent, and probably more, of the total homeless population. Dr. Nachison said that the figure of 200,000 across the nation is “the statistic now bandied about,” but he thought it was much too conservative a figure, since homeless veterans are difficult to count. He emphasized that he and Van Keuren had devised Stand Down because they “wanted to send a message to the nation that to have 25 percent of the homeless [as] veterans was a national disgrace.”

Veterans Village of San Diego (VVSD) has been producing Stand Down for 21 years. Al Pavich, CEO Emeritus of VVSD and a former Naval Commander who served three deployments in Vietnam, explained that “combat really changes a person. Sometimes our soldiers have a very hard time reentering society, and they end up on the streets. VVSD is working to catch them before they become completely dysfunctional. Stand Down is only a three-day event. These people need more time in a program like what we have going at VVSD, and that’s going to take more funding. We’re building a new addition at our facility, so we’ll soon have 250 beds, but that’s still a drop in the bucket compared to how many vets we have out there who are ready to make a change and commit to that change.”

homelessSeveral of the homeless veterans related what life was like for them on the streets. One couple, whom we will call Rose and Edward, stand out in my mind. They had both served in the military and were married for about a year. Rose was shy about speaking to us, but Edward related several jolting stories. For example, one night they awoke with a burning sensation and realized that someone had lit their blanket on fire. Another time, they were both awakened by someone kicking them as they were sleeping. And it was typical for passersby to shout at them, “Get a job, you bums!”

“That really hurts our feelings,” said Rose. “We want to find work. And we served our country. Shouldn’t that count for something?”

It occurred to me that after the three days of relative “luxury” at Stand Down, 715 participants would have to go right back to the streets. On our way home from the shoot, I cried for these men and women who had served their country, many of whom now suffer with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and now seemed to be invisible to most Americans. Some of them, according to Pavich, were war heroes who had earned Gold Stars, Purple Hearts and Awards of Valor.

The question was: What could we do to help them?

Mark responded, “Well, we could do what we do best—and that’s video. We could make a documentary about this issue.”

And so we did. For the next year, we videotaped interviews and events focusing on this national tragedy, and we called it The Invisible Ones: Homeless Combat Veterans. We approached California Congressman Bob Filner, Chair of the Veterans Committee, and Congresswoman Susan Davis, Chair of the Military Personnel Committee. We spoke to Gary Becks, Director of Rescue Task Force, and Brigadier General Bob Cardenas, who had tested the Flying Wing back in the 1940s. We also spoke to several homeless veterans in an attempt to understand their situation. How do these veterans become homeless? What is it like to be homeless? What are people doing to assist homeless veterans?
We found out that most of the veterans on the streets have emerged from the Vietnam and Gulf War eras, although it is not unusual to see vets from the Korean War and even World War II. Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are now trickling onto the streets. Phil Landis, current CEO of VVSD, believes that the trickle will soon become a flood if we don’t put more energy into solving this problem.

“To have our war heroes sleeping out there on the streets—it’s unconscionable,” said Dave “The Water Man” Ross, a San Diegan in his 70s and a Korean War veteran who has been passing water out to the homeless out of his own social security check for over four years. We interviewed The Water Man onsite in an inner city neighborhood in San Diego. The backdrop consisted of homeless people with shopping carts who were camped out on tarps, blankets and newspapers in front of a fenced-in dirt lot.

“Did you know that there is not one water fountain or porta-potty in a 40-block radius?” he asked. “These people are invisible.”

I remembered growing up as a teen in Detroit, and then as a young woman in San Francisco. I had passed plenty of hulking figures and outstretched arms, not really understanding how they had arrived there, what I could do to be of assistance, or why it was even necessary for me to try and help. The scales fell from my eyes, so to speak, and I was ready to show my fellow Americans what is happening on the streets of our nation.

Mark and I decided to donate copies of The Invisible Ones to citizens and concerned organizations that will show the film and help raise funds to assist homeless veterans. If possible, we only request $4 to help us with shipping.

We attended the 2008 Stand Down and delivered a DVD of our documentary to Chaplain Darcy Pavich, Stand Down Coordinator. Her eyes glistened with tears as she said, “Do you know how many video crews have come and gone over the last 20 years, promising to send us their pieces? You are the first who did what you said you would do. You walk the walk.”

Homeless veterans are sleeping on our streets tonight, and we all have to help them. We Americans, who value our freedoms, who pattierealize what sacrifices our service members have made, and who truly wish to help, can make a difference—starting right now.

Find out more about The Invisible Ones at or call 619.644.3000. Patty Mooney and Mark Schulze are partners of an award-winning San Diego video production company, Crystal Pyramid Productions, which has served broadcast and corporate clients since 1981. Visit for more information.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Molly April 3, 2009 at 4:09 pm

Well, gee-wis, the OB Rag has discovered the homeless. Better late then never. glad to see some attention on Sandy ego’s situation.


avatar Dave Gilbert April 4, 2009 at 10:13 am

I was in a band that plays at Stand Down every year. I can’t think of a more beautiful or rewarding audience to play for. These are OUR heroes and should never be forgotten.


avatar Frank Gormlie April 4, 2009 at 6:57 pm

that’s great dave


avatar Dave Gilbert April 4, 2009 at 7:06 pm

Thanks Frank!

Stand Down was my 1st & last show in that group. I was in it from ’04 to ’07 so I played 4 of them and I tell ya, every year without a doubt Stand Down was my favorite gig, period.

We were on national television, got major exposure, and made a pretty big splash but still those Stand Down shows were the simply best people to play for, ever!


avatar John Stump, City Heights April 8, 2009 at 10:22 am

Dear Friends,

I agree entirely that our society and leadership are greedy selfish and non humans concerning the poor and needy. {I am avoiding the term “homeless” as that term stereotypes individuals that may not be homeless but are rather “houseless” or perhaps needy souls.)

In OB and City Heights we have indigenous persons who have lived in our neighborhoods for years and consider the neighborhood their home even though they do not rent a house. These persons are “houseless” not “homeless”. We could easily make life better and more pleasant for these individuals.

Schools, parks and public building could be designed and operated to provide access to sanitary washrooms, showers and dry sleeping platforms. The current approach is to shut out persons of need and to fence of these buildings to deny admission. Every park should have the showers and facilities we gladly provide to sun bathers at the beach.

The taxpayers annually provide the Zoo some $10 million dollars to house monkeys; but fights to a crisis to find a couple of hundred thousand for the winter shelter. Nearly $7 million is spent by the City for the regulation and control of animals in each budget year- there is a lot of money for an animal shelter but little for human care. So the City spends some $17 million to take care of Bonzo, Fluffy, and Fido but almost nothing to take care of our fellows. There is little debate and no audit review of these expenditures

The Mayor and Council leadership try to weasel out of this municipal responsibility by placing the burden on the County of San Diego. They want to make human care someone else’s problem. The original charter of the City of San Diego contained a Department of Public Health and Social services (Article V Sections 60 -61. In the 60’s, based on promises of efficiencies, the voters permitted the consolidation of these services with the County Regional government. These promises have not been fulfilled and it is time to review the needs and meet or obligations.

I think that in the upcoming 2010 City Budget adoption process we must consider a Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs which addresses human health and survival needs first before any other matters and expenditures. Please ask the City leadership to spend at least as much on humans as animals in the 2010 Budget. $17 million dollars will go along way to meeting the needs of the poor and needy residents of our City.

Finally, Solutions start with each of us and not just the government. Ask yourself, what are you doing to solve this challenge? Do you share?
All the best
John Stump


avatar Robert Collins April 10, 2009 at 1:42 pm

As a combat veteran, it myths me how our government can throw billions at a problem of homelessness and never solve it.

None of the real questions are asked to get to the root of the problem. There are programs to get the vet of off drug and alcohol which are only symptoms of a bigger problem. Many fail to see that these people are economic victims of debts that can’t be forgiven and when they start working all their income is getting confiscated to pay back taxes and back child support. This system is vicious and unfair because these debt can not be forgiven and the interest on the debt is 10% compounding daily where there is no hope or escape many give up and live on the streets.

The government treats animals better than they do vets and it a shame that the SD Housing Commission puts vets at the very bottom of the list and gives head of the line privileges to mothers and children when 78% of these vets are fathers that are unable to see their children because they don’t have a home to keep their children.

Father Joe’s new residential tower was supposed to host many of these homeless vets and solicited donations to get these vets off the streets and then bait and switched their promise by allowing illegal immigrant families from Escondido to move in and betray the vets it was promised to.

We need government to stop beating down vets and allow them to get clean slates so they can rebuild their confidence and get back to work.


avatar cecelia April 19, 2009 at 2:15 pm

New York Playwright LARRY MYERS has done extensive research on homeless situation and his “Car Sleepers & Tent City Folk” will be done at Martin Griffin’s
Venice Canal Cabaret in Venice in June and in NYC in August
in the past this Myers wrote about Katrina

he was there as volunteer & a clever play about Florida “Fabian is a Hurricane Now” I understand the real Fabian plays golf in Pennsylvania with Myers high school friends
Myers is Living with Disabilities too


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