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Iowa community coalition gives helping hand to veterans, homeless

CEDAR RAPIDS — Quite a crowd was gathered at Veterans Memorial Stadium, but there were definitely no games being played.

A coalition of more than 70 regional organizations joined forces Friday to care for homeless and nearly homeless veterans and other community members. From haircuts to medical screens to winter clothing, the coalition, organized by the Linn County Department of Veteran Affairs in cooperation with other groups combating homelessness, served more than 150 people during its sixth annual “Stand Down” event.

Over the years the scope of the event has grown, but the mission has remained mostly the same, said Don Tyne, Linn County VA director. “We want to connect people who are homeless or near-homeless with the groups and services that can give them a hand up, get them back on their feet.”

Image has not been found. URL: http://media.iowaindependent.com/sarah_480.jpgVolunteer Sarah Castelein scrubs down a table as part of the prep work for a free lunch served to veterans and other at-need residents. (Photo: Lynda Waddington/The Iowa Independent)

Although initially created as a service just for veterans and their families — and hosted from the back of a truck — the event, Five Seasons Stand Down, is now open to all who are challenged and this year took up the entire concourse at the ballpark as well as a portion of the parking lot.

“Stand Down” is a term historically used in times of war in which exhausted combat units come off the battlefield to rest and recover in a place of safety. Today the same term refers to this type of community-based program that provides food, shelter, clothing, basic medical exams, general legal services, and other assistance and referrals to the homeless or near-homeless.

According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, the very first such event was held in San Diego, Calif. in 1998. Since that time, Stand Downs have been used an effective took in reaching out to homeless veterans, extending services to more than 200,000 veterans and their family members throughout the nation.

The events have worked well, Tyne said, because military veterans are, in general, people of pride and the Stand Down events don’t carry the same stigma that a veteran may experience by walking into a traditional substance abuse or behavioral health service.

“Just like the name implied historically, this is a safe place,” he said.

Image has not been found. URL: http://media.iowaindependent.com/papers_480.jpgA wide range of services and referrals were offered to those who attended the Five Seasons Stand Down event. (Photo: Lynda Waddington/The Iowa Independent)

Earlier this year two federal agencies joined forces to offer Congress and the nation a first-ever report of its kind on homeless veterans. According to that report, each state in the nation has some level of homeless veterans — nearly always a disproportionate number when compared to veterans in the overall population. In the Midwest, for instance, veterans comprise 7.7 percent of the total population. Veterans, however, represent 9.5 percent of all of those seeking homelessness services. In the nation’s western states, the figures have even more contrast with veterans making up only 7.2 percent of the population, but 13.2 percent of those homeless.

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