Pam Marino here, thinking about the power of community. On Friday I saw that power at work at the 2022 Homeless Veterans Stand Down at the Monterey County Fairgrounds in Monterey. I went at the invitation of the organizers from the Veterans Transition Center, including coordinator and VTC board chair Tom Griffin, who I spoke to for a preview story I wrote for this week’s print edition of the paper.
When I got there on Friday morning, the first day of the two-day event, there were hundreds of volunteers on hand to serve homeless or near-homeless veterans in need over the weekend.
Walking through the grounds I passed a full team from the SPCA for Monterey County offering free spay and neutering and other services, tents to visit a chaplain or people from both Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. Meals on Wheels for the Monterey Peninsula and the Food Bank of Monterey County had a mess hall and food trucks set up to feed everyone.
I also passed a makeshift legal office with attorneys ready to give advice. On Saturday one of the fairgrounds buildings would be turned into a courtroom with judges from around the region to hear misdemeanor cases with a goal of clearing veterans’ records so they could access jobs and housing.
My guide, volunteer Stand Down public relations officer and Navy vet Dan Presser, visited the medical/dental/optometry building first, run by the nonprofit California Care Force, where dozens of volunteers from CCF who came from all over the state as well as the local area were caring for veterans. It was the busiest place at the fairgrounds that morning.
Off to one side was the optometry area with an exam area and a display case of frames to choose from just like at an optometry office or eyeglass store. Veterans get their new glasses mailed to them in about three weeks, no charge. John Weis of CCF is a Vietnam veteran who said he is retired from the optometry industry. “It’s always a pleasure to have a veteran serve another veteran,” he said.
In the dental area local dentists were seeing patients in a makeshift office, with partitions between each portable dental chair. To make it as antiseptic as possible black plastic was taped down over the carpet. “It’s a little rough,” said Monterey dentist Richard Kent. “It’s like doing dentistry in a pup tent in Korea.” Nevertheless, Kent said he and the other dentists were delighted to help.
The clothing building inside the King City Room is Robin Falkenberg’s domain. It takes her about 18 months to prepare for each stand down (they are held every other year), collecting donated clothing, toiletries, backpacks, duffle bags and sleeping bags. She also organizes volunteers who serve as the “personal shoppers” helping each veteran collect exactly what they need. “They’re grateful for whatever we provide,” she said.
Over in the fairgrounds’ arcade section, numerous nonprofits and government agencies had representatives waiting to get veterans connected to housing, job search help and other services. There I met Willie Griffin of Freedom, in Santa Cruz County, and his little rust-colored dog Stinky, so named because she’s spoiled “like a little stinker,” he told me. Griffin was in the Operation: Care and Comfort booth, making greeting cards for active duty soldiers.
Griffin served as an Army Infantry cook at Fort Ord in the mid-1980s. He comes to every stand down, not only for himself, but for other veterans he knows who couldn’t be there. He gathers information and takes it back to them. “It helps other vets less fortunate than I am,” he said.
The stand down can’t happen without the entire community pitching in—veterans or not, VTC Executive Director Kurt Schake told me recently.
“It means that the community cares and that the community is looking to help them help themselves,” Schake said. “It’s a check-in so a vet who is homeless can get plugged into various support systems.”