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Stand Down for Homeless Veterans gets underway in San Diego this weekend

July 11, 2012 1:39 p.m.


Phil Landis, President and CEO, VVSD, Veterans Village of San Diego

Jennifer Litwak,Manager of Projects and Development, SD County Regional Task Force on the Homeless

Related Story: Stand Down Event Expects Record Turnout Of Homeless Veterans


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. The concept of a stand-down program for homeless veterans is an idea that originated right here in San Diego. As San Diego's veterans' village marks the 25th anniversary of the stand-down event, we'll find out how the numbers and the needs of homeless veterans have changed over those years. Joining me, Phil Landis, president and CEO of veterans' village of San Diego. Welcome.

LANDIS: Thank you. It's a pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: Jennifer Litwak is manager of projects and development at the San Diego County regional task force on the homeless. Welcome.

LITWAK: Thank you for having us.

CAVANAUGH: What originally prompted the idea for an event for homeless veterans?

LANDIS: The mid-19-'80s, we had a large number of homeless veterans who had no resources at that time in San Diego. Actually, it was a national disgrace. And two folks who were working with the agency at that time, Robert van curin, along with the clinical director, doctor John Natchison, came up with the idea of having a large grouping, if you will. They thought maybe 50 or 60 folks would show up. The first year, they had over 200 people. They said we're onto something here, and that was the beginning of it want

CAVANAUGH: Do you have an idea of what those first standdowns were like? How many services might have been available to the homeless veterans?

LANDIS: The first year it was minimal. We did have the VA, which has been a partner with us from the very, very beginning. They were there. We had some employment folks there. But it was minimal. But it grew from there because from those early-on experiences, we determined what the needs were. And the longer we were doing it, the more we realized that the needs were extreme indeed.

CAVANAUGH: Now, the idea that started here apparently spread across the country. About how many other cities have stand-down programs for homeless veterans now? And are they similar?

LANDIS: It's up to over 200. The last figure I saw was 240. They are similar in concept. There are very few 3-day events such as the one here in San Diego. Of the vast majority are single-day events. But it's like a bazaar if you will, a cornucopia of services that are judicious available, and veterans come in for resources.

CAVANAUGH: It's great to be able to help out struggling veterans, but it's tough to think that standdown is needed after all this time.

LANDIS: And that's exactly the case. Many of us have felt that we'd be involved in this for a few years and solve the issue, and all the veterans would be self-sufficient and we'd all go home. It hasn't turned out that way. Last year at our event, we had 1,003 participants. The most we've ever had. This year, we're gearing up for more and hoping for less.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, okay. I understand that. Jennifer, we did a show earlier this year about the regional task force on the homeless count and the breakdown that you guys did about counts up the number of people who are homeless in San Diego. And one of the alarming statistics that we talked about at that time, and if you can remind us a little bit about this, is the new veterans who are living on the streets here in San Diego. Tell us about that.

LITWAK: Well, San Diego county does have the highest concentration of recently returned veterans. When we talk about veterans that are experiencing homelessness, San Diego County does come in higher than the national average. Nationally, about 12% of individuals that are experiencing homelessness are also veterans. Here in San Diego County, it's about 18%. When we look at people in terms of recently returning, we have about 32% of our homeless veteran population unsheltered that have served in Middle East conflicts, are so since 1991.

CAVANAUGH: That's the new veterans.

LITWAK: Exactly.

CAVANAUGH: Do we know why some of the reasons that these young vets are homeless?

LITWAK: I'm going to have to turn that one over to Phil.

LANDIS: Ah, ha. Okay. What we see in the younger population mimics the core issues of trauma that have always been with us that we've dealt with. Post traumatic stress disorder, unemployment, for the most part drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness. But one thing different in this younger group which I classify as post-911 and pre-911. In the post group, we're beginning to see a segment of this population fall into homelessness primarily because they're unemployed. But they don't come to us with drug and alcohol issues. They're homeless. So there's a shift and our agency has successfully created a new program specifically for young men and women, veterans, who fall into homelessness that do not have drug and alcohol issues, at least to the extent where they would be classified as an addiction.

CAVANAUGH: I know that we have done again a number of shows on returning veterans here in San Diego, as you would imagine. And one of the things that has come up as a possible problem faced by veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is head trauma. And the problems experienced by people who suffer head injuries. Have you seen that as a factor in the increase in homeless veterans in San Diego?

LANDIS: We see traumatic brain injury as a segment of this population. And this is something new for us. It's something new on a national level as well. So we're beginning to see men and women affected with head traumas in our facilities as well. To a large extent, what you see as an observer mimics a PTSD but it is not. It's slightly different.

CAVANAUGH: What kind of medical facilities will you have at standdown? For vets who come in and may not be addicted to drugs or alcohol or may be self-medicating? Are there follow-up services for medical needs of homeless veterans as part of this event?

LANDIS: It's a great question. The very first standdown incorporated medical services from the VA hospital. It has since expanded into a full mass unit. Every imaginable health issue you can think. We have resources, we take the individuals directly to the hospital. But what we're seeing for follow-up, and that's the critical portion of this, this is a three day event. You hands on for a short period of time. What we try to do is instill in the individual the knowledge of this is where you can go. Here are your resources. We will in some cases pick the folks up by the scruff of the neck and take them physically it a resource that will provide them the kind of medical services they so desperately need. If you've been on the street for any length of time, and I'll define that as a week, you're going to need some kind of medical service.

CAVANAUGH: Right. How is the regional task force for the homeless involved in standdown?

LITWAK: We're involved by participating. I will be there myself on Friday. So we're an active participant, and then we also help by having an open and continuing dialogue with them, a huge partner in our point in time count. By continuing that dialogue, are we can be in contact with them about what the data is showing us so they can better prepare the services that are going to be offered. But then also something we've been having dialogues around is the mental health. What are the veterans reporting in terms of mental health that they're showing, so again it can be staffed appropriately, and as Phil mentioned, the key key is the follow-up.

CAVANAUGH: So you handle sort of the numbers end of this to make sure that other agencies and facilities have enough services available and know what kind of challenges veterans are facing?

TINKSY: Yeah, more of a conduit of knowledge sharing so taking all the data, turning it into something that's meaningful so they can see the challenges the population is facing.

LANDIS: You can imagine an individual who first is homeless for you know, most of us, that is a concept that we really can't put our hands around. So you view the world differently than your neighbor who is housed. If you've been on the streets for any length of time, 85% of this group will have diagnosable drug and alcohol issues, trauma issues. There is a component of chronic illness as well. If you've been homeless for any length of time, you learn what it means to live in a world of despair and hopelessness. You've probably burned every relationship issue you've ever had. You've run out of every couch that you can surf, and you may have had children along the way but may want have seen them for a very very long time. Part of what we do beyond the medical component and the psychiatric component, we provide a court system, the Courts actually come to standdown. We have two of them, one is a homeless court. If you have typical issues like illegal lodging or if you have issues stemming from citations for the trolley or any number of things that you would pick up, we have a court system there that will help you remove those obstacles, which become barriers to employment and to moving on with your life. Several years ago, we instituted the child support court. So say you've got ten years worth of back child support. This is a way to help you reunite with your family if you're willing to do so and helping to remove that barrier. We're not going to forgive the amount of money that you may owe. But we might make it easy for you. And the idea is to allow you then perhaps to pay justice a very small amount, but to get employment. In California, if you owe back child support, the first thing that happens when you start paying taxes is the light goes on, and they're going to take 50% of everything you earn. Then you're going to say why should I bother to work? So the Courts in San Diego County are very aware of this, working very closely with us, because the idea is to help people become self-sufficient.

CAVANAUGH: I know the concept of standdown is a handup, not a handout. I'm wondering if other agencies and services in San Diego as noble as they are perhaps miss something about treating and dealing with homeless veterans.

LANDIS: I think one of the beautiful things about San Diego, which is somewhat unique in the nation is that we have a community, which is made up of public and private organizations that work together as a fabric. Another one will pick up. And we work as partners, and we work very well together as partner. So we refer folks back and forth to get the resources they need.

CAVANAUGH: I believe the City Council is going to be talking about the need for another temporary winter homeless shelter. When the permanent homes shelter is up, do you see this as removing the need for standdown?

LANDIS: Thank you. I'm glad you brought this up. There are two winter shelters. One is the downtown shelter which alpha project has been facilitating for a very long time. And they do a wonderful job. And the other is veteran-specific. I think you're referring to the downtown shelter, the one that alpha project does.

CAVANAUGH: I was, yes.

LANDIS: At the new downtown facility, there are going to be 225 beds, 75 of which will be permanent. Housing leaves 150 transitional. The math tells me we're reducing the number of beds available during the winter months to house veterans or nonveterans as well. And I can never quite figure out how that worked out.

CAVANAUGH: Well, let me ask you then, not only standdown, but do you intend to stop holding those winter veterans' shelters when the permanent housing comes into play in downtown San Diego?

LANDIS: Several years ago I was testifying in front of the land use committee and this subject came up, and I got an agreement from the committee that they would continue to fund the veterans winter shelter. So I'm going to take them at their word. And so far their word has been good.

CAVANAUGH: Now, tell us, when and where will this standdown take place?

LANDIS: It starts this Friday, early. You don't have to be there as early as I. I'll be there around 5:00. Doors open promptly at 6:00. It is at the upper athletic field of the San Diego high school.

CAVANAUGH: I know there are so many people in San Diego who are probably deeply moved by what you've been saying. Because we are a historical military town and our hearts go out to the people who have done so much for us. If people want to volunteer, can they still do it?

LANDIS: Well, not at this late point, unfortunately. It takes about 3,000 or so volunteers. I have one individual, Darcy pavich, who is our coordinator, she puts about five months full-time into this in advance. We're pretty well set. We have thousands of position that are filled. But next year, please, track us down. We'd love to have you as a volunteer. Last year, we had 3,600 volunteers.

CAVANAUGH: Do you need any donations?

LANDIS: Always need donations. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. And Jennifer?

LITWAK: I know standdown is just one of the many projects that BVSD does offer, so you can go to their website, and there's going to be numerous opportunities to help support membership of their other programs.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much.