The line of Veterans and their families at the Washington, D.C., VA Medical Center started forming early on Saturday, Jan. 25, for the 16th Winterhaven stand down.
The frigid weather outside the facility only made the yearly outreach effort for homeless Veterans that much more important for local volunteers and VA employees, and that much more critical for the Veterans attending.
“It’s nice to know people are concerned,” said U.S. Army Veteran Elijah Parker, “but unfortunately — for me — it’s necessary.”
Parker, who has attended the D.C. area stand down on three previous occasions, said he braved the cold temperatures to attend the job fair housed on the first floor of the facility. He used to work construction before becoming unemployed, and while he did look forward to the free clothes and medical check-ups, talking to employers was a priority for him.
“I need a job, and I think there might be something good coming out of this,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ll get that job, but there are some organizations here that I wouldn’t have talked to before.”
Brian Hawkins, director of the D.C. VA Medical Center, understands the need for more than a handout among the Veterans he serves. According to him, not only was this year’s stand down more successful in the number of Veterans it touched, but it also brought in more community partners to support Veterans for the long run.
“A stand down means nothing if I bring people in, and I just give them clothes and a haircut for today,” Hawkins said. “It’s about sustaining lives… so we bring employers in too. This year we had triple the amount of employers as we did the year before.”
Another significant addition to this year’s stand down for Hawkins was the public unveiling of the Community Resource and Referral Center (CRRC). The center, which opened two years ago, has successfully reintegrated formerly homeless and at-risk Veterans into the community by giving them skills and jobs. One of the center’s initiatives, a culinary training program, took center stage at the stand down as recent graduates were on hand to not only share the food they made, but also their stories with others.
“That’s how we reach people,” Hawkins later said. “They may see me, or you, out there and it doesn’t mean as much. But if they see their fellow comrades, who were once like them, on the other side… they see hope.”
A few hours after registering for Winterhaven, Parker made his way toward the medical center door with bags of information and clothes in hand. He stopped long enough to echo the running theme for this year’s stand down – putting Veterans in position to succeed through employment is just as important as one day of charity.
“Seeing people who were in similar situations, and knowing that there are people out there to help you, is nice,” he said. “Because being unemployed can be a lonesome kind of thing from time to time. It feels good to know people care.”