For twenty years, the Washington D.C. Veterans Affairs Medical Center has partnered with local, state, federal and community organizations to reach homeless and at-risk veterans through the annual Winterhaven Homeless Stand Down. This year’s event, held Jan. 25 inside the D.C. VA Medical Center, brought together more than 70 organizations whose mission is to serve veterans and help them integrate well into post-service society. D.C. VA Medical Center Public Affairs Specialist Sarah Cox said that the event attracted, “hundreds of veterans, maybe a little more this year than last year.”
According to a fact sheet distributed at Winterhaven, last year’s event was attended by 651 veterans. Approximately 4.6 percent of all veterans who have attended Winterhaven over the past five years are female veterans. It is a group that will grow as today’s service members move on to join the veteran community.
“When I served, women were only nurses and finance clerks. Now, they’re truck drivers, jumping out of airplanes, everything,” said Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 227 vice president and Winterhaven volunteer J. Leonard Ignatowski. “But, women have different needs, and the VA is waking up to that..”
With that in mind, female participants at Winterhaven spent part of the day separated from their male counterparts, so that they could try on clothes and shoes and get their hair done without, as one volunteer put it, “the gawk factor,” of being in a mixed crowd.
Some of the clothing and shoes and personal care items distributed to veterans at Winterhaven were purchased for the event, but much of it was donated.. For the ninth straight year, barbers affiliated with Bladensburg Barber School provided haircuts and beard shaping for the veterans.
“We had shoe drives at our jobs and everything,” said volunteer Paullette Wade as she helped veterans find boots and shoes that fit comfortably. “We had all kinds of people donating. We have hundreds, hundreds of pairs of shoes and boots here today.”
Christina Schinner also helped hand out shoes, in between cooperating with requests for photographs from appreciative veterans. The 2013 Mrs. Exquisite International said, “I’ve been here since eight (a.m.). It’s great to give back, especially for this cause.”
Veterans at Winterhaven had access to what D.C. VA Community Resource and Referral Center Senior Social Worker Miranda Nance called, “a one-stop shop” for health screenings and referrals, shelter information, case management assistance and other resources.
Winterhaven dominated two floors of the D.C. VA Medical Center. Lines were long, but not too long for people accustomed to patient, persistent effort to create for themselves the lives they know they deserve, as veterans and human beings. As they waited, the veterans caught up with friends from the service, the shelter and the street. They shared information on where to go for job training assistance, who to talk to about housing vouchers, how to navigate the VA’s health care system. They told their war stories, and their stories about life after they returned home, where the challenges were often harder to handle, confusing, frustrating and unexpected after serving in the armed forces.
“I got out in ‘05. I saw what was coming,” said veteran Marvin Freeman, who calls on those who treat returning combat veterans to be patient and gentle. “Veterans have been through some stuff. You physically force a Vietnam vet who’s been through some stuff (to take medication, or cooperate with medical staff)? He’s going to have a flashback. That’ll make any man go off...I’ve seen so many vets come back with no limbs. I’ve seen death. Veterans go ‘poof,’ just before my eyes.”
Roswell Goler served as a hospital corpsman in the Navy until 1981, and now works as an emergency medical technician. It sounds like a natural career path, and perhaps it can be, but in Goler’s case it did not lead to the prosperity he expected. Frustrated with his struggle to receive benefits as a veteran, Goler spoke of the challenges he has faced since leaving the Navy, including a period of homelessness in 2011. He calls on the VA and the government at large to take better care of veterans, in part through legislation to make violence against veterans a crime punishable by stiff penalties. Like many of the veterans at Winterhaven, life on the street and in shelters has exposed him to violent attacks.
“We should not have to fight over here. We fought over there, already,” said Goler. “They say ‘Hire a vet,’ and that’s good, but it should also be ‘Protect a vet.’ They said we should serve and protect? Well, who’s going to serve and protect us, when we get out? They don’t honor their contract. We honored ours.”
Pointing out a deep scar along his hand and wrist, Goler said his injury, sustained while serving in the Navy, has caused lasting damage.
“Veterans have health problems. I gave four years of my life to my country, and I almost lost my hand. As I get older, my hand gets numb. My wife touches my hand, and I can’t feel her caress,” Goler said. “I call for medical care, for dental care, for my disability (payments), and I get ‘yadda, yadda, yadda.’ I get the yellow brick road run-around. Sometimes, I want to set this place on fire.”
Goler credits a VA counselor with helping him get back on his feet after becoming homeless in 2011.
“There’s no need for you to be homeless. There are HUD VASH (Housing and Urban Development Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing) vouchers, and grants for furniture, too. There are agencies that can help you, but they’re not getting word out to the veterans,” Goler said. “My counselor, Larry Kirsch (at the VA Community Resource and Referral Center) on Franklin Street hooked me up. There are resources out there, and the VA gives good medical care, but you have to be patient.”
The HUD/VASH voucher program has enabled 1,045 homeless veterans to find permanent housing since 2008, according to a D.C. VA Medical Center fact sheet, which also states that there are 87 vouchers available. During a Jan. 2013 Point in Time Survey cited by D.C. VA Medical Center, approximately 719 homeless veterans were identified in the center’s catchment area. The Veterans Administration has a goal of ending homeless among veterans by 2015.
Homelessness and life near the edge of that chasm is not what Goler and other veterans at Winterhaven expected of life after military service. With an average age of 52, many of the veterans planned with hope, and instead found hardship. Former Army National Guardsman Paul Suprono Jr. has been in and out of shelters since a bike accident in 1992.
“What saved my life, was I was wearing a helmet. I was unconscious for two weeks,” Suprono said.
Suprono’s father came to the D.C. area from his native Cambridge, Mass., to visit one last time with his unconscious son. Despite his initially poor prognosis, Suprono was able to walk out of a local hospital on his own power, two months later. The accident has left him with short-term memory struggles. The accident also led to his homelessness.
“I was gone for two months, and my landlord did what landlords do,” Suprono said. “Everything I owned became road trash. I’ve been in and out of shelters ever since.”
Like Goler, Suprono recounts episodes of violence on the streets. An assault while he was homeless damaged his ankle.
“I was on 14th and Fairmont when I was assaulted, and it twisted up my ankle. I competed in the Ironman Triathlon, but I can’t run no more, since the assault,” Suprono said.
Instead, Suprono pursued culinary training through the D.C. Central Kitchen.. He volunteers at soup kitchens and homeless shelters around the city, coordinating donations of food which might be discarded by stores and restaurants because it is nearing its sell-by dates.
“Although we live in a land of plenty, we live in a land of waste,” Suprono said. “People throw away good stuff. One thing I learned from my military experience--I learned to give back.”
Suprono lived for a time in a subsidized apartment, and then became homeless again.
“I had a place, but I lost it. I turned it into a real ‘man camp,’ and because I didn’t take care of it they took it away,” Suprono said. “I was homeless, but I live in (an apartment) on a voucher, now. I won’t let it happen to me again. Screw me once, shame on you. Screw me twice, shame on me, you know?”