A fresh pair of socks, a haircut, a hot meal.
Humble offerings individually, but together they represent the kind of freebie assortment communities around the nation offer local homeless and at-risk veteran populations during annual “stand down” events.
Veteran stand downs – a term lifted from military jargon meaning a temporary break in high-readiness operational posture – are usually one-day events promoted primarily by a mix of community groups and non-profits, local government, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Typically held at armories, churches, community event centers or VA facility parking lots, stand downs aim to draw as many homeless and at-risk veterans as possible and link them up with medical professionals, housing and employment specialists, and general social worker types who can help them pursue any government benefits or assistance they might qualify for.
“It’s important that the homeless and at-risk veteran community feels seen. It’s important for those who contributed to hear ‘thank you,’” said Rachel Wustman, a veterans services outreach specialist for Kent County in southwest Michigan who directed the 2022 Grand Rapids stand down. “It’s also important to have things for them to take away, as a physical reminder.”
Behind the scenes of nearly every stand down, Defense Logistics Agency Disposition Services and its federal property transfer authority provides a cohort of about 200 VA property screeners with those free physical reminders and takeaway items that help communities maximize the appeal of their events. According to the command’s Reutilization, Transfer and Donation branch officials, authorized VA screeners pulled nearly 300,000 used and excess items originally valued at about $10 million from DLA’s stores in fiscal 2022.
“Vets love to show their patriotism and service, and surplus is something they are familiar with and can relate to. It’s one of the things they look forward to the most,” said VA substance use disorder specialist and DOD surplus property screener Sean Stallworth. “The services at the stand down are great, but the surplus is the carrot that gets them to engage.”
Stallworth said he begins acquiring items from DLA sites about six months prior to vet outreach events in Kalamazoo and Battle Creek, Michigan, when he’ll begin checking DLA’s online inventory weekly for “essentials” like cold weather gear. His property wish list is informed through ongoing community partner engagements that provide “a baseline of what the community may need.”
Veteran homelessness experts roundly agree than an essential element for hosting an effective stand down is availability of surplus Defense Department property. Camouflage backpacks, winter gloves, thermal underwear, fleece hoodies – valuable things people can keep and use – are what gets people to come out. The draw of surplus property is so undeniable, many stand downs implement signature or stamp systems to ensure attendees visit the various resource and assistance booths on site before they are allowed to peruse surplus items. And virtually to a person, stand down planners agree that if there’s any single military surplus item with the power to draw in attendees above all others, it’s boots.
“Everybody wants a pair of boots. Everything else is secondary,” said Don Donahue, a Chicago-based VA outreach coordinator who has ordered DOD surplus items for the city’s twice-annual stand downs since 2014. “This year, we have 400 pairs of boots. DOD surplus is a big draw for the stand downs. A lot of the vets really like receiving the equipment. For the ones who are truly homeless, the boots, duffels and coats are huge. Absolutely essential.”
Donahue said the Chicago summer and winter stand downs serve up to 450 area veterans who are either currently homeless, in shelters or transitional housing, or have successfully made it into a steady long-term housing situation but continue to visit the events for the sense of community.
“The boot giveaway is definitely the biggest draw, no question. The stand down wouldn’t really work without it,” said Brian McLaughlin, a Forest Park Veterans Center psychologist who serves as floor manager during Chicago’s stand downs. He said sleeping bags and wool blankets are “a big hit” as well, because even if they get wet when used outdoors, they retain warmth.
McLaughlin explained how DLA military surplus transfers to the VA help improve the lives of stand down attendees on multiple levels.
“For one, the surplus is a tangible way we are taking care of veterans. That should matter to taxpayers,” McLaughlin said. “Also, there’s a community of people that come together during these stand downs. Long term, any kind of preventative care we provide them is economically wise. People who are less depressed go for walks, have less neuropathy and don’t have things happen like getting their toes cut off [from diabetes]. You’re creating a situation where people feel less alone and feel better about themselves. A chance for them to get loved on. The surplus is a doorway where the vets are then exposed to other stuff. It’s the stuff on the other side of the door that makes the difference.”
Social worker Amanda Briggs has ordered used and surplus personal items from DLA Disposition Services for the Grand Rapids stand down since 2016, and for the Saginaw event prior to that. She agreed that “boots are a big one,” and demand is always high for any winter gear that coordinators can get.
“Surplus, realistically, is the biggest draw to a stand down,” Briggs said, noting that veterans often showed a “wonderful nostalgia” for items they associated with their national service. Like McLaughlin, Briggs pointed out both immediate and bigger picture impacts that a steady stream of surplus items allows for.
“These events are for veterans in crisis, who are homeless, who are struggling financially, so being able to come through and get a bunch of nice, warm gear, they’re getting things they otherwise would not have been able to afford, and without it, it would honestly make winter more dangerous at times for those who are spending a good chunk of their day or night outside,” Briggs said. “Longer term, it protects people, keeps them out of ERs, prevents hospitalizations for silly things like hypothermia, and it engenders good will. It’s a nice thing for veterans to come through and realize ‘my VA does care about me and look at these nice things they brought to the table today.’ It’s just all-around great.”
Briggs also begins requisitioning property from DLA property disposal sites in the months leading up to the event and has some storage space that stays “pretty full.” The 2022 event that took place in August – Grand Rapids’ first since the start of the pandemic – saw a dozen pallets worth of surplus shoes, clothing, and bags from DLA sites handed out in just four hours.
“We would be in trouble without [DLA],” Briggs said.
Her colleague John Koch, a local VA veterans justice outreach coordinator, helps to screen the used and excess DLA property online and place orders for the items given away in a handful of Michigan cities. He agreed that maintaining the overall flow of DOD items was critical to the VA’s sustained outreach.
“If we did a stand down one year and there isn’t surplus, it’s likely we’d cut our participant number in half the next year,” Koch said. “It’s that essential.”
Officials with the VA estimate that the department’s event planners made upwards of 6,000 property requests annually before the pandemic struck, most events were cancelled, and the average number of requests fell by about a third. The DLA RTD team’s data shows that more than 400,000 items originally worth $18 million shipped to the VA in 2019 and about 150,000 less items were requested the year COVID-19 upended the nation. Despite the recent drop, the property remains critical to outreach efforts.
“You name it, I’ve ordered it,” said Donohue, citing hoodies, sweat suits, t-shirts, coats, long johns and, of course, boots as items he’s always keeping an eye out for. “95% of it is fine. In a tri-wall full of duffel bags, maybe we’ll have three that we have to throw away.”
This past year, giveaway items came from military installations near and far, including outer wear from South Korea, emergency blankets from Japan, sleeping bags from England, extreme cold socks from Germany, and gloves from Italy.
“When I’m getting surplus, I have a lot of control over what I’m getting for our particular stand downs. There’s a lot of clicking, sometimes items have vague descriptions, but overall, I think it works pretty well. We find what we need,” said Briggs.
There are currently more than 40 DLA property disposal sites at military installations spread across the U.S. and its territories, at places like Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow, California, Fort Meade, Maryland, and Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota. No matter where items originate, the VA is asked to cover item transportation costs. The property itself is free, an investment already made by U.S. citizens.
“The surplus is welcome, it’s impact is enormous,” said VA Peer Specialist Ronald Henson, a property screener for Michigan stand downs. He said recent policy changes that now allow housing assistance to those who were discharged under “other than honorable” circumstances has “widened the net” for VA outreach personnel. He cited lingering feelings of mistrust toward the VA from older generations and said personal property handouts help change the dynamic.
“They gave me a tent, they gave me a jacket,” Henson said. “It helps them understand that the VA is looking out for them now.”
Reggie Howard began his career with the Battle Creek VA facility in 2008. In a role called peer specialist, Howard said he handles the cases of up to 50 veterans at a time and assists them in a variety of ways, including with housing searches, appointment scheduling, transportation questions, recovery meeting attendance, and generally helping them “at any level.”
Howard said he was there when his hometown of Grand Rapids began its own veteran stand down for the homeless and at-risk in 2008, and he stands by its impact and importance.
“One of the greatest things – the ones that were homeless in the beginning,” Howard said. “You see them come back to let people know ‘you can do it, they did it for me.’ You hear veterans share stories. You see veterans working who were once homeless vets. You see them here, helping clean up, saying ‘now I can give back. I can take time and help my fellow vets because I remember when they helped me.’”
Homelessness among U.S. veterans is not a new thing, but the situation is improving. It was documented during the Reconstruction Era, after the U.S. Civil War. In the 1930s, after the first World War, there were as many as 250,000 veterans on the street, and during the Truman presidency there were an estimated 100,000 homeless veterans just in Chicago, according to studies on housing reform efforts during the era. The peak of homelessness in the U.S. is generally considered to have taken place after the Vietnam War, in the 1980s, and Senate hearings from the time pegged the number of homeless veterans at 300,000 in 1987. Amazingly, the number today may be ten times smaller thanks to outreach efforts like the stand downs.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development monitors homelessness via a “Point in Time,” or PIT count conducted each January. According to HUD’s most recent count, about 20,000 veterans were experiencing “sheltered homelessness,” meaning they resided in transitional housing, shelters or other supportive settings. Another 13,500 were unsheltered and living in places not meant for human habitation like cars, abandoned buildings, parks and sidewalks. The snapshot represents a 55% reduction in veteran homelessness since 2010.
“In Chicago, on a January day when it’s zero degrees, people want a home,” said Donahue, who said he has personally seen vets go from sleeping in a field to living in their own house. “Sometimes, it’s just a matter of helping them get there by meeting them where they’re at so they can realize their potential and where they could be.”
Donahue said that in Cook County, which represents the core of Chicago, maybe 18 to 24 vets currently remain homeless at any given time and a “within reach” goal is to get that number down to a dozen, which he called “functional zero.”
For those that remain homeless, or in danger of it happening, outreach personnel are convinced that the surplus items from DLA provide a physical calling card – like a refrigerator magnet with the plumber’s phone number for when a pipe bursts.
“A rucksack – maybe that’s what got them here,” said Wustman. “But then, maybe they used the resources. That’s the hope. Maybe it’s nice now. Maybe they don’t need their heat on, but when it gets colder, maybe they can’t afford to have their heat on. Well, come to Kent County Veterans Services and we’ll help.”
In October, HUD released a statement saying the drop in veteran homelessness from January 2020 to January 2022 was the largest of the past five years.
“I’ve been on both sides of it,” said Howard, a former sailor who was himself a homeless veteran prior to attending a substance abuse program at the Battle Creek VA facility in 2007. “It’s so great to be able to see veterans and cheer them on and give them a positive outlook. When they see me, they remember me and they’re like ‘hey, if that guy can do it, I can do it.’”