Veterans Day search-and-rescue mission targets Washington DC's homeless
By FREDRICK KUNKLE | The Washington Post | Published: November 11, 2019
WASHINGTON — About 40 volunteers, led by a handful of former military personnel, marked Veterans Day on Monday by reaching out to homeless veterans in the District of Columbia.
The effort — organized by Veterans on the Rise and the Union Veterans Council of the AFL-CIO — targeted shelters and other places frequented by the homeless. The volunteers gathered in the parking lot of Shiloh Baptist Church for an 8 a.m. briefing before breaking into smaller teams that handed out kits containing toiletries, gloves, socks and wool caps to anyone who needed them. They also handed out cards with information on how to obtain temporary shelter or assistance from Veterans Affairs.
Alfred Burley, 71, said he created Veterans on the Rise in 1980 after struggling with drug addiction that put him on the street for many years. Burley, who had been a paramedic with the Army in Germany toward the end of the Vietnam War, said he wanted to find alternatives to homeless shelters that provided little but that. Instead, he joined with other veterans and established an organization that offered interconnected services for veterans, including counseling, job training, shelter and finding health care.
David Kurtz, executive director of the nonprofit group Veterans on the Rise, said sending veterans into the streets builds on the camaraderie instilled in military personnel for each other, the spirit that warriors should never leave one of their own behind.
"The common bond of military service is very powerful," said Kurtz, a former Army helicopter pilot. "With a group of veterans, you're going to build rapport and trust with each other, faster."
That was the approach taken by Dan Helmer, a former Army officer and newly elected Virginia legislator, as he introduced himself to several homeless people on the street and in encampments near George Washington University. He was accompanied by Howard University juniors Rasidat Adenlola, 20, who is studying to work as a speech pathologist, and Taylor Rodgers, 19, a nursing student.
Helmer and the students did not find any veterans - something that Helmer was happy about. Several of the people they did encounter appeared to be suffering from mental illness, including a man who was doing calisthenics near his tent.
The man was grateful for the kit, but his thoughts came out in an incoherent jumble, touching on manufacturing rifles and bubble gum to missile defense and working for an intelligence agency and aerospace companies and the Cuban missile crisis.
Helmer and the students listened patiently.
"We got some socks and things," Helmer said. "Would you like some of those?"
The man accepted them with thanks. Helmer asked whether the man had a place to stay if the weather got cold.
"I stay here. That's my job," the man said as the small group moved on, unfazed by the encounter.
"It shows the challenges that we have more broadly dealing with mental health in this country," Helmer said, estimating that half the homeless people he met on Monday might be mentally ill.
"It's a challenging issue for which there are no right answers," Helmer said as he made the rounds. "This is obviously not the right answer, but institutionalizing people is not the right answer. It is vexing."
At a circle, Helmer introduced himself to a man wearing a camouflage jacket who said his name was Wesley. Helmer asked whether he was a veteran, but the man said he wasn't.
"Are you all right?" Helmer asked, handing him one of the kits.
"I really appreciate this," the man said. "Thank you so much."
He said he would call the "hypothermia van" if necessary, or go into a shelter if became too cold.
When the volunteers moved on, Wesley, who declined to identify himself further, said he was grateful for the help but that it wasn't enough for the region's homeless population.
"When it gets cold around Thanksgiving or Christmas is when you see the people. But what about the rest of the year? Where are they?" Wesley, 57, said. "There's a lot of older people like myself out here . . . and older women out there, who never get reached. That's an injustice. I mean, they spend how much money on military people? On war?"