Some three hundred homeless veterans went to Seattle Central Community College on Thursday for a "Stand Down" event where they could access health care and counseling and learn about disability benefits or other services. At the end, they could leave with a new backpack, a jacket, socks and other essentials for life on the streets.
Jerry Shaw, a rail thin Vietnam veteran, entered the gear room at Thursday’s “Stand Down” at Seattle Central Community College and gazed at the huge piles of sleeping bags, gloves, hats and jackets.
“This will save lives here this winter,” Shaw said. “If it only saves one, it will be great.”
Shaw was one of about 300 men and women who showed up at the event, which offered homeless veterans a kind of one-stop shopping, where they could access health care and counseling and learn about disability benefits or other services. At the end, they could leave with a new backpack, a jacket, socks and other essentials for life on the streets.
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The event was a cooperative effort launched by veteran and student Sam Barrett, 30, and involved more than 50 agencies and organizations. Barrett is a Seattle Central graduate now attending Seattle University, and both institutions helped sponsor the event.
King County officials estimate 2,500 to 3,000 veterans are homeless in King County, and their plight has twice-spurred voters — in 2005 and again this past August — to approve a special levy to help improve their lives. The levy has raised more than $13 million a year for veterans and was one of the funding sources for Gossett Place, a 62-unit low-income housing complex that opened in Seattle’s University District earlier this week with some apartments set aside for homeless veterans.
“This has been huge — so huge that other counties want to replicate it,” said Joel Estey, a King County veterans service manager.
But many homeless veterans remain on the streets. Some seek refuge at night in shelters. Shaw — who was shot through the right lung in Vietnam — is staying at the Booth Center, a Salvation Army shelter in South Seattle.
Steve Cassidy, a Navy veteran whose life fell apart after his wife was killed by a drunken driver, said he actually prefers the outdoors because he is wary of bedbugs at shelters. He plans to check out a tent city north of Seattle.
Cassidy said he lost $230 a month in disability payments after 68 days in jail and has tried unsuccessfully to get them reinstated. On Thursday, he was able to check in with federal Department of Veterans Affairs and other officials at the “Stand Down.” Many of them are already-familiar faces, though, and he said he wasn’t sure how much more anyone can do.
“We know everyone in this room. Everyone here fights for us,” Cassidy said.
One veteran, after serving in Vietnam and subsequently living what he said was a life of crime, drugs and alcohol, balked at seeking any sort of disability payments. Rick Busby, 57, said he has cleaned up his life. He doesn’t blame his years of problems on his service with an artillery unit in Vietnam, so he wouldn’t check in with the VA to see if he qualifies for payments.
Most of the veterans who attended the “Stand Down” were from the Vietnam era, or the post-Vietnam era that stretched to 9/11.
But there were a few veterans of Afghanistan and the war in Iraq — a small but growing sector of the homeless population, according to King County officials.
At Thursday’s event, 30-year-old Stephen Felder, an Army veteran from North Carolina, grabbed a sack lunch offered by the Elk’s Lodge No. 92. Felder said he’d found plenty of construction work until he was injured in a 2010 auto accident. Earlier this year he decided to move to Seattle.
Once Felder arrived, he said, some people warned him how tough it was to live on the streets here. But Felder said as long as you treat people with respect, you can get along.
“So far, I’ve done all right,” Felder said. “I’ve yet to have any issues.”
Seattle Times photographer Greg Gilbert contributed to this report. Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or email@example.com