Looking for a House in Their Home
By Sean Telles
South El Monte, CA –”Heroes in the Shadows” the 2nd Annual San Gabriel Valley Homeless Veterans Stand Down, a veteran event focusing on ending homelessness through comprehensive education and care, began Friday morning with free 24-hour services lasting for the next three days. This included meals, a place to stay, and more importantly wellness resources, such as physical screenings, mental health education, and veteran assistance education.
For one of the main event organizers, Joe Leal, a veteran himself, this is more than a ceremony. It’s part of his life’s work and a way to honor his fallen comrades. His group, the “Vet Hunters Project: Advocates for Homeless Heroes” is a volunteer organization that believes the words homeless and veteran should never be a part of the same sentence, and has helped over a thousand veterans connect the dots and find resources available to them through conventional and tailored programs.
Leal, like the event itself, is a bridge between community resources and needs. During his welcome speech, he addressed a common misconception that a person needs a lot of money to have a significant impact helping homeless veterans. He shared the story of a homeless veteran who was taken off the streets with a $16 bus ride home. Other times, help comes through partnership and attention. Such was the case with a terminally ill veteran, who the Vet Hunters were able to send home by working with a variety of agencies. The vet was given a plane ticket to his home state and when he arrived, another veterans group took him directly to his family’s residence. There the man was able to fulfill his final wish of spending his last days at home after 10 years of homelessness.
Other guests, including event sponsor Congresswoman Grace Napolitano, addressed the need to battle the negative, incorrect stigma surrounding mental health issues. Napolitano encouraged veterans to buck machismo and talk to each other about post traumatic stress disorder. “You aren’t crazy. You just need to know how your brain is working.”
El Monte Mayor Pro-Tem “J” Gomez shared his own veteran experience. A Vietnam War vet, he joked his first letter from the Federal Government was a draft notice. He also shared his dedication to veterans through the years and invited the public to a ground-breaking ceremony on Veteran’s Day, November 11, for a new veteran housing development in El Monte. Pico Rivera Mayor Bob J. Archuleta, who is also a veteran and the Los Angeles County Commissioner of Military Veteran’s Affairs Chairman, enthusiastically praised El Monte’s leadership and has begun his own work to bring resources for San Gabriel Valley veterans into local outlets.
Local community groups donated their time and resources in abundance. While too many to name, Rosemead Kiwanis, Wal-Mart, Denny’s, Chick Fillet, and others provided food; Hacienda La Puente Adult Education Cosmetology Department provided free hair-cuts and manicures; Healthy Way LA’s Community Health Alliance of Pasadena provided free dentistry work; and the Army Reserves donated time and energy to set-up housing tents for the participants – which was a unique aspect to this “Stand Down” in the San Gabriel Valley.
Sections of the event, or camps, were named in honor of two local veterans who recently passed away – more information on them will be featured in the near future. Their families attended the opening events and were honored by official guests and comrades in arms. Their pain is still fresh and hard to approach, but harder to ignore, and should never be forgotten.
George Washington is often quoted as saying “the willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the Veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by the nation.” And while is event is touching in a number of ways as it brings people together, the fact that it needs to happen at all, that veterans still need help in a number of areas, is enough to give pause to Washington’s words.