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Homeless veterans prep for winter at annual Stand Down in Colorado Springs

October 17, 2017 Updated: October 18, 2017 at 10:47 am
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Joe Tustin tries on winter gloves at the Veterans Stand Down in the Colorado Springs City Auditorium on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017. The stand-down gives homeless vets access to services as well as getting them necessary items to make it through the winter. (The Gazette, Nadav Soroker)

Joe Tustin knows the margin of error while surviving winter on Colorado Springs' streets drops with the mercury.

"Just as simple as a warm winter coat can help quite a bit," said Tustin, 62.

On Tuesday, he joined scores of other homeless and impoverished veterans at the 19th annual Stand Down - many gearing up for their next test of survival.

The event, organized by the El Paso County Veterans Coalition, aims to help veterans prepare for the winter, while connecting them with nonprofits who can help them find an apartment. It's modeled off the military's practice to "stand down," meaning to rearm and re-equip personnel for battle.

For Tustin, that meant grabbing a new backpack, a blanket, jeans, puffy winter gloves and, importantly, a new pair of boots.

He's spent the last two winters sleeping outside, amid fears of his belongings being stolen at a shelter. Now he spends his nights rolled in a sleeping bag at various places along South Academy Boulevard.

"It's been good," he said, heading to the gloves. "I've gotten just about anything I need."

Dozens of nonprofits pitched in. Nearly 200 veterans - either homeless or impoverished and at risk of losing their apartments - were expected to attend.

Audiology tests and dental check-ups were offered, along with blood pressure screenings, flu shots and Hepatitis C tests.

Rich Lewis, left, helps Nathan Albaugh with the application form at the Veterans Stand Down in the Colorado Springs City Auditorium on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017. After filling out information about what services the veterans are registered for and what needs they might have, they were paired with active-duty servicemen who helped them through the stand-down. (The Gazette, Nadav Soroker) 

Nonprofits also screened each veteran for their exact needs - placing them into a system that aims to pair them with the right service that can help them find housing. And, as in years past, organizers handed out countless shoes, gloves, blankets and other clothing items.

Seven homeless families - in all, about 25 people - received a one month's stay at a downtown hotel, while caseworkers help them find a more permanent place to live.

"What we're trying to do is expand, but put ourselves out of business at the same time," said Joe Carlson, who helped organize the event.

The event came as nonprofit leaders say they've had difficulty finding landlords willing to accept federal housing vouchers that offer homeless military veterans a ticket off the streets.

And it comes as homeless advocates voice increasing alarm about the ability for homeless shelters to meet the demand for beds this winter. The city's only shelter where admission is based on behavior, not sobriety, has barely kept up with demand over the summer. And some fear people will be forced to stay outside once the snow starts falling.

Tustin hopes he doesn't need his new supplies for long. He plans to move into a house with a friend in about a month and a half.

Still, those supplies could prove critical. The average low temperature in Colorado Springs begins dipping below freezing in late October.

As Tustin tried on a pair of Denali boots, a volunteer piped up.

"Good fit?" she asked.

"Yes, ma'am," Tustin replied.

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Contact Jakob Rodgers: 476-1654

Twitter: @jakobrodgers

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