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.
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.”
Several 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 realize 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 www.theinvisibleones.org 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 www.crystalpyramid.com for more information.