By Chris Stone
A San Diego military veteran — who used to live under a bridge — lost his driver’s license due to DUI fines. He had no housing or transportation. He was alone.
The veteran sought help at the five-location Veterans Village of San Diego service and persevered in its sobriety program. Thanks to that effort, his fines were dismissed and he regained his driver’s license.
And the story doesn’t end there. The veteran now is employed, has housing and has reconnected with his family.
Homeless Court is one of myriad services offered at VVSD-organized Stand Down, the annual three-day intervention in a tent compound near Balboa Park that helps veterans get attention for their personal, medical and legal issues.
About 767 veterans, spouses and children – about 100 fewer than last year — are taking care of personal needs with the help of about 3,000 volunteers and about 150 service providers.
“This is the greatest thing,” said 60-year-old Henry Huffman. “This is Christmas in July.”
Huffman spoke to Times of San Diego as he sat on a military cot, dressed in a new shirt, new tan pants and tan jacket.
“You will get more help than you ever came to get,” said the Vietnam War veteran who lives in Mexico. “Everyone here is bending over backwards to help you.”
Among the services Huffman received at the 31st annual event was obtaining an identification card and going to Homeless Court.
A ticket for smoking near the trolley or jaywalking or sleeping in a tent may not seem overwhelming, but when those citations add up, it can be seem to the homeless like an insurmountable obstacle, Thackston said.
Those fines can lead to a downward spiral. The psychological weight of such fines can lead to missed court appearances, leading to arrest warrants.
And that leads to loss of a driver’s license and independence, the former gunnery sergeant continued.
Such is the storyline for some homeless veterans, and Homeless Court at San Diego’s Stand Down seeks to relieve that burden and give veterans a hand up.
“When we eliminate fines and fees and dismiss the charges, it gives the veteran hope,” Thackston said Saturday. “It fosters more hope in the judicial system again, and the courts come to the veteran. They’ll never be able to pay these fines and fees unless you give them a fresh start.”
Last year, more than $100,000 of fees and fines were waived, said Lisa Record, development director for Veterans Village.
This year, Thackston referred 200 people to the court — but not all were qualified to have their cases heard. (To be qualified for the judicial proceeding, the veteran must have an active non-violent misdemeanor in San Diego County that hasn’t been resolved.)Veterans pre-register for the court, and their records are researched. Once they arrive at Stand Down, they meet with someone from the Public Defender’s Office or the DLA Piper Global Law Firm. They serve as an attorney before a judge, who holds court in a tent.
“It’s a reward for them standing up,” Thackston said. “That takes a lot for these veterans to take that step…. It’s really a good confidence booster.”
Other Stand Down services include food, haircuts, showers, teeth cleaning, massages and chiropractic services.
“There’s an amazing array of medical professionals and interns and students here who are just eager to help somebody and spend quality time instead of the 20 minutes that’s usually allotted to an office visit that they spend three hours getting to, said tent leader Peggie Peattie.
Kim Mitchell, president and CEO of Veterans Village of San Diego, spoke of the atmosphere at the event.
“It’s a time when they can literally stand down from being always on the alert and always on the guard as they are in the streets,” Mitchell said.
“Stand Down gives them an opportunity to sleep in a bunk with other veterans, form some camaraderie, some partnerships, some fellowships, some community, get a hot shower, some bag of clothes, some hot meals in them,” she said.
(People who wish to donate can text 41444 to 4AVET, and will be taken to a screen where they can make a contribution.)
Indeed, it’s the sense of community among former service members — who have shared experiences and attitudes — that is especially valued at the event.
Peattie, a former San Diego Union-Tribune photographer, spoke of the dangers on the streets.
“For someone who is homeless, in just one night, your life can change,” she said. “You get beat up and robbed and boom — you have no identity and you’re disoriented and hurt.”
But at Stand Down, “For them it’s a relief. You don’t have to beg. You don’t have to be embarrassed about needing something. They can relax and commiserate and talk about their military experience.”
Marilyn Cornell, who has assisted at Stand Down for the past 30 years, called it a cross between Woodstock and a family reunion.
“It’s a chance for them to know that the community cares and that it matters to us,” she said, “and we appreciate what they have done for us, so this is our way of giving back.”
Ta’Lai Robb, who served in the Army, attended the Stand Down last year as a volunteer and has returned to get help herself. She filled two bags of clothes for herself and her children.
Last year she cut veterans’ hair as a San Diego City College cosmetology student. It was then that she became aware of the benefits that she could also take advantage of.
“This is golden,” said the 38 year-old who worked as a licensed vocational nurse for 11 years. “It’s really a blessing to be here.”
Veteran Huffman, who said he looks forward to the event each year, has but one regret: He wishes it was held more than once a year.
“It’s more than just a Stand Down,” the Missouri-born veteran said. “It’s where you come to see friends. It starts to become a tradition, like a family thing. I’ve made a lot of friends here.”
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