El Paso homeless veterans stand down
August 11, 2011
EL PASO, Texas, Aug. 5, 2011 -- The Texas National Guard Armory hosted the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ annual Homeless Veterans Stand-Down Friday.
The event, run largely through volunteer efforts, provides clothing and information to veterans who are homeless or at significant risk of being homeless.
“Our homeless veterans, sometimes they have no bedding, no food, no clothing, no resources,” said Joel Arreguchi, veterans justice outreach coordinator with the VA. “We have this event every year to make this available to them. [To] some of our veterans, this is the most significant event where they can get resources, especially for the winter. We provide blankets, sleeping bags, boots and stuff that are essential for the winter.”
Among the institutions there to provide less tangible but highly important resources, were the Veterans Benefits Administration, the Social Security Administration and the Texas Workforce Commission. As an example of the important services these organizations perform, the Texas Workforce Commission provides veterans with jobs and information on job availability.
The event had a lot of moving parts: Soldiers organizing tables full of clothes, the opening ceremony commemorating prisoners of war and servicemembers missing in action, the survey tables set up outside, the many information booths, and the breakfast and lunch being served down the hall from the main event.
“It’s a big community event,” said Arreguchi. “El Paso has always been very supportive of our homeless veterans’ community, especially because Fort Bliss is one of our major partners here in the city. We have a lot of volunteers, a lot of community agencies that are willing to give their time and energy to put this event together.”
Among the volunteers were Soldiers from Fort Bliss. Sgt. Francisco Tejada, a police officer with the 93rd Military Police Battalion, volunteered at the event, passing out clothing and other articles to homeless veterans.
“Unfortunately we have a lot of veterans homeless,” said Tejada. “I think this is a very good effort from the government and the military to help the veterans.”
“There are many contributing factors,” said Arreguchi of why so many veterans make up the homeless population. “[Post-traumatic stress disorder] is one of the major things we try to address in our treatment and our mental health services. … There might be substance abuse. There might be mental illness … and, of course, the very difficult economic times. We’re undergoing the after-effects of two wars - Iraq and Afghanistan. We have a lot of young Soldiers that are newly homeless now. That’s an issue that our president and secretary of Veterans Affairs, [Eric] Shinseki, are trying to address.”
With all the agencies and community organizations that provide services and information, one of the larger messages to impart at the event is that homelessness does not mean hopelessness. Julio Gutierrez, one of the organizers of the event, was once a homeless veteran and, due to a college degree he earned while homeless in San Francisco, became a social worker for homeless veterans.
“Especially now with [Operation Enduring Freedom] and [Operation Iraqi Freedom], veterans ... are coming in with mental problems - and females with mental and health problems,” said Gutierrez. “I immediately identify them and take them to the VA where I can help them get pensions and have them go through issues mental and physical and channel them properly.”
From first-hand experience - as well as success he’s seen as a worker - Gutierrez believes in education as a viable way out of homelessness.
“It wasn’t until I finished that college degree that I was able to get good jobs, pay child support and be able to pay my bills,” he said.
According to Arreguchi, the event drew about 260 volunteers and participants. He believed that the event, as small as it may be in comparison to the larger issue of homelessness, did meet with success.
“The major component to the stand-down and every resource that we provide our homeless community or homeless veterans is for their objective to end veteran homelessness in five years,” said Arreguchi. “This is just a small component of a bigger picture. … It’s being met with limited success, but we’re seeing success.”