It was 1988 when Robert Van Keuren and Dr. Jon Nachison joined the Vietnam Veterans of San Diego in organizing the first Stand Down for homeless veterans. Since then, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans website, "...the program has expanded across the country and become recognized as the most valuable outreach tool to help homeless veterans in the nation today."
Chino Valley's Barbara Mikkelsen is the Site Director of the United States Veterans Initative here in the quad-city community. She was also one of the key organizers of the Stand Down event held in Prescott on Friday and Saturday at the Methodist Church. She explains, "Basically a stand down is a place where the homeless veterans in the area can come and get the services they need without feeling any threat of law enforcement or anything like that. In fact we have a legal team here that is working to resolve the legal issues of any of the veterans here that are signing up for the legal services. That's anything in Yavapai County. Criminal, civil, family law, child support, bankruptcies. So, if any of these guys or gals have that sort of legal issue, they can go in and get that resolved. It might result in some kind of community service to resolve it, but the goal is to make sure they're free to come and go as they please without that threat of a warrant hanging over their heads. A huge component of the Homeless Veterans Standdown is the legal support."
"And then we've got all kinds of other services," Mikkelsen continued, "We've got housing and food and pet supplies and medical screenings and benefits counseling, clothing, and all a bunch of different veterans service organizations like the VFW and the American Legion - just a very vast array of different services provided within. The Vet Center is here and they're operating the mobile van that's just around the corner. My understanding is that they're doing glucose, blood pressure screenings, and stuff like that."
This weekend, Mikkelsen reported that 285 received services during the Stand Down, including 48 who received legal assistance. "It is an annual event, we're committed to doing this every fall," she said. "And every year we're committed to increase the number that we're serving.In the planning phase, we were looking at about 300 homeless veterans. Last year when we had our event the total was 217. We've got some homeless veterans coming from the Kingman area and Flagstaff and Cottonwood to get services here today."
Mikkelsen also pointed out that six vets listed Chino Valley as their town of residence.
So, who was eligible to receive services? Mikkelsen pointed to the ladies sitting at the table, "We have the VA eligibility team - for this purpose an eligible veteran is anyone who served in active duty for any length of time."
As we wandered through the various rooms being used to meet with the veterans, Mikkelsen explained what was happening and which organizations were participating. She pointed to each one as she said who they were, "West Yavaapai Guidance Clinic, VA Mental Health, Suicide Prevention and Benefit counseling, and haircuts."
Haircuts? "Yes," she nodded, and pointed to one veteran in the chair wrapped in a cape.
"We've got about 10 attorneys that are working pro bono," Mikkelsen said, "Most of the legal services are located in the Yavapai or tri-city area."
We walked along an outside corridor, to an area where large tents were set up.
Mikkelsen stopped and gestured, "As you can see, we've got a wide range: This year we managed to get about 40 vendors to come and man the tables and give the information out about their particular service. We've got the Veteran's Service organizations, Department of Economic Security, a Hygiene Table, where they can go get back packs full of hygiene items, all of the clothing over there was donated by the community. We've got H&R Block, Catholic Charities, DAV, housing resources. We're seeing more female veterans now, and the community has pulled together to develop more housing options just for females whether they're homeless or not."
So, who pays for this? Mikkelsen answered, "We're funded through the United States Department of Labor. They build into their budget a certain amount of dollars for homeless veterans standdowns across the United States. We were able to tap into that grant money to make this possible today."
And what's in the hygiene backpacks? Advil, mouthwasy, deodorant, toothpaste, socks, towels, shaving supplies, cosmetics for the ladies - everything they'd need to look presentable.
Along another outside corridor and down some steps and we were in the dining area where the veterans were being fed. Mikkelsen explained, "We coordinated the event with Open Door, Diane Iverson is the director here, and she has been instrumentally arranging all the food services. Yesterday we did a noon meal with take-away bags for the homeless, today we did full breakfast, we're doing the noon meal and we're also doing take-away bags today."
Looking at the takeaway bags, it was obvious that they wanted these men and women to have at least one more decent meal, "A bottle of water, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, vienna sausages, applesauce, juice, crackers and a granola bar."
Glancing over, we could see stacks of boxes with boots and shoes in them. Mikkelsen explained where they came from, "We received a huge order from the Department of Defense (DOD), and they support Stand Downs across the US, and with their surplus items, they ship them out for these events. So most of the shoes and the boots and all the new stuff you see in here was provided by the DOD."
Right outside the meal center was the Veteran's mobile medical unit. Mikkelsen told us what services were being given there, "Glucose screenings, high blood pressure screenings, we've got HIV/AIDS education, and then up in the other area where VA Mental Health Services are, it's dealing with people that might have severe mental illness such as PTSD, bipolar disorder, schizoaffected, and chronic depression."
How do these homeless veterans arrive? Mikkelsen explained, "We also were able to get support from the local transportation companies, and they are donating their drivers and their time and their vehicles today to make sure that people get in to this event. We've got several pickup points across the city."
Is the goal to help these veterans find a place to live? Mikkelsen nodded. "The goal of the standdown is to try to find housing resources for every vet that's out on the street. Some of them that come to this event may not even be ready to do that, but it's reaching out to them, and trying to establish a rappor where they can trust us and know that we're going to provide them with the supportive services they need to get off the street and get out of that lifestyle."
Philip Frisbee was one of the veterans there. But he was also there to encourage and help out. Frisbee introduced himself, "My name is Philip Frisbee, I'm on the Board of Directors with Coalition for Compassion and Justice, I'm a homeless advocate for Open Door."
When asked why this event is important to him, Frisbee responded, "Because, as a Vietnam era veteran, when I came back from the United States, there were so many times that I needed substantial support in order to turn my life around and become an active and involved member of society, that was not there at the time. When you face coming back to your country, and you're disabled, and you don't have an education, and you need all the support in the world, and you're really crazy - let's face it: you take a perfectly good body and you lend it to the military government, you don't come back whole."
Frisbee continued, "So, in order to overcome some of the gaps and limitations, that are kind of standing in one's way, a lot of people don't see that. It's not until some traumatic event starts happening in their life, and they start reaching out and looking for help. It's kind of like the ancients that were here 300 years ago. They knew that their society was continually to survive as long as they kept lifting the weakest ones to their strengths. Now we all have different strengths, and we all have different attitudes about things. We didn't come from the same family, so we operate differently in the kitchen, so to speak. But, yet, holding anything against any one person is a detriment to ourselves. Because each and every person has a greatness inside themselves if the flame is but lit on the fuel that is there."
"I believe that if we have a true compassionate heart, and use some wisdom and interaction, there should be no poverty," Frisbee smiled and kind of shrugged. "That's an idealistic, stylized viewpoint, but I've been in situations four different times in my life where the doctors said I wouldn't walk, I would never hold a career, I didn't have a skill, I had a lot of putdowns in front of me. I overcame an awful lot. And the last time things turned around for me in 2000, I gave up three wonderful careers that I loved due to an injury, and then I had to learn how to go through a whole bunch of deja vu stuff and face the fact that I was really worth something and come back to where I'm an active and participating part of society."
So, does Frisbee believe that can happen for other people, too?
"Yes, I've seen some marvelous and amazing transformations that can happen to people, if they're actually given the opportunity and also to help them know that the justification is not what another person says, but they come to their own quantitative quality of who they truly are. Because no one person can actually see inside the heart and soul of another person. But in order to get them to feel that they have a worthwhile purpose and that they can do things not only to help themselves but to help others, it makes for a much better society."
When asked why she is involved, Mikkelsen's comments were from a completely different perspective, but blended nicely with Frisbee's. "I think it has alot to do with taking the opportunity to do something positive for those who laid down life and limb on my behalf, those who offered themselves up to preserve the freedom and liberty under which this country was founded. Serving each individual veteran at their time of need is a compassionate, patriotic and honorable thing to do."