Those who served country get a little help in return
Before Friday, Vietnam War veteran Butch Higgs had never known that an event to help homeless veterans even existed.
Winding through the booths set up at the Elks Lodge, 249 S. Fourth St., during the annual Stand Down for Homeless Veterans event, Higgs was pleasantly surprised to get some things he needed.
“Can you use a long-distance phone card?” one worker asked.
“I can always use that,” Higgs replied, pocketing a card.
After seeing the booths set up by a number of local charity organizations that offered services such as haircuts, clothing, a flu shot and information on housing, Higgs had his teeth examined by dentists from Marillac Clinic. Finding dental care was another service he had long been putting off after losing some teeth.
For three years Higgs had been homeless, bouncing around in Montrose, Olathe and Ridgway. Thanks to a voucher program through Veterans Affairs, Higgs and his 14-year-old daughter have been in a home since February. He welcomed the chance Friday to get loaded up on some supplies, especially looking forward to the surplus military jackets, gloves and hats, and to enjoy a warm plate of barbecue.
More than 100 veterans entered the Elks Lodge doors before noon Friday, numbers that reflect a constant variable of homeless veterans needing housing, officials said. Non-veteran homeless folks were invited to stock up and get services after veterans’ needs were taken care of.
Several programs exist to house veterans, including a separate unit for a dozen veterans at Homeward Bound shelter. Grand Junction’s Veterans Affairs Medical Center received 60 vouchers last year and this year to get homeless veterans into homes. Veterans receiving housing also can get case management to help with mental issues and substance abuse.
However, a list of veterans seeking housing runs at least 100 names long, said Lisa Strauss, homeless coordinator for the VA.
The yearly Stand Down concept is fashioned after similar retreats from combat for Vietnam War soldiers. During a stand down, soldiers would take breaks from battle at a secure camp to clean up, get some rest and attempt to renew their well-being.
Grand Junction’s VA Medical Center and local charities have contributed to the effort for years. This year was the first time the Elks Lodge hosted the event.
The central location near downtown and near Whitman Park, where homeless people are known to gather, made the site accessible, officials said.
“It’s a community issue,” spokesman Paul Sweeney of the Grand Junction VA Medical Center said. “You can’t approach it as only a veterans’ issue, or you’ll fail.”