Navy veteran Booker T. Johnson was one of many vets waiting for an eye exam at the 23rd Chicago Homeless Veteran Stand Down at the General Jones National Guard Armory last weekend.
He was among hundreds of men and women, some who served during the World War II era, who had lined up on a sweltering morning, waiting to approach the registration tent to collect a red wristband and a meal ticket.
The event started early Friday and went into Saturday morning. By the time it was over, 650 veterans had traveled from one service table to the next, receiving food, donated clothing, medical attention, legal assistance, and housing information, in the hopes of fleeing poverty and finding better futures. Veterans make up about a third of Chicago’s homeless population.
“People in the clinics come out and makes me feel good about the things that are happening around us. They give us information and motivate us,” Johnson said. “I got out in [the] Vietnam era and half the stuff, they didn’t tell us. People have advantages today that weren’t available to us when we got out in ’70. All of this should’ve been available. But it was a different world. They didn’t appreciate us like they do now.”
The event at the armory, 5200 S. Cottage Grove Ave., was sponsored by the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center in collaboration with Chicago-area veteran centers, VA medical centers, and over 60 public and private agencies. Organizers usually expect 700 to 850 people to show up, but Assistant Chief of Voluntary Service and Hospital Foundation Trent Ward says he considers the event a success if the number of attendees drops every year.
“If I see the numbers going down, I’m happy because that means we’re getting them off the homeless rolls and they’re starting to take care of themselves, and starting to have a place to live, and starting to function where they feel comfortable,” Ward said. “I’m hoping we have a lower number this year, every year it goes down.”
Dr. Jeanne Douglas of the Oak Park Veterans Center said the first goal of the event is to provide veterans with immediate care such as food and shelter. The second, is to recognize them for their services.
“[We want to] create an atmosphere where veterans remember that they’re veterans,” Douglas said. “[Because] so many people are in a bad state financially and emotionally, they kind of forget that there are resources out there. So when people come back to stand down and they see military tent and the people in uniform, they realize that there are resources out there for them and that they don’t have to go at it alone.”
Among others helping with this years event were VietNow, Vietnam Veterans of America, Greater Chicago Food Depository, The Gift of Sight, and Wounded Warriors.
Medical services included blood-pressure checks, HIV testing, glucose testing, foot and eye care and massages. Solders Angels bring comfort kits; the Red Cross provides bedding for those staying over night; Food Pantry distributes lunch and Snap registers some people that qualify for food stamps. The Stand Down also provides housing information and applications for attendees.
Gov. Bruce Rauner, who held a news conference at the event, referred to the “tragic” number of homeless veterans in America. “We can’t let veteran services suffer from a lack of budget,” he said.
Johnson, who is enrolled in the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the Drug Dependency Treatment Program at Jesse Brown VA, said he found out he was eligible for these classes when he came to his first Stand Down three years ago.
The event serves to promote awareness about the services provided at VA clinics, in the hopes that homeless veterans will begin, according to Donald Donahue, a Supportive Housing Clinical Manager at Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital.
“We find [the veterans] are definitely more willing to check out the VA, and homeless program and the mental health services [after the event],” Donahue said.
Air Force veteran Andre Jenkins Sr. registered for the PTSD program at Jesse Brown without coming to the Stand Down, but he says the event still plays a key role in assisting veterans.
“I learned about Jesse Brown otherwise, but that doesn’t take away from Stand Down,” said Jenkins, who, like Johnson, also served during the Vietnam War. “Most guys who are homeless and living in shelters, don’t have the money for the things that are being offered here. They might need shirts, pants, shoes, socks. It’s inconceivable that it would be that way in today’s time, here in Chicago, in America and being a vet, but it’s true.”
“A lot of networking happens,” Douglas said. “All of those people in the tent area get to know each other. We also have a certain number that returns. Probably a good amount. At one point, we found that kind of discouraging. But then we realized that people of means go to military reunions and this, for some people serves that purpose. We get about 20 to 30 percent of repeats. Probably about 20 percent come for the camaraderie.”