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Stand Down for homeless veterans in Colorado Springs has huge turnout

October 20, 2015 Updated: October 20, 2015 at 7:09 pm
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photo - Donald Batey, left, and Andrew Gilbert, the president of the American Legion Riders Post 209 in Colorado Springs, share a joke while Arlene Watkins cuts Batey's hair during the annual Stand Down for homeless veterans Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015, at the City Auditorium in Colorado Springs. The event, organized by the El Paso County Homeless Veterans Coalition, offered social services, clothing, bedding, food, and hair cuts for the veterans.  (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
Donald Batey, left, and Andrew Gilbert, the president of the American Legion Riders Post 209 in Colorado Springs, share a joke while Arlene Watkins cuts Batey's hair during the annual Stand Down for homeless veterans Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015, at the City Auditorium in Colorado Springs. The event, organized by the El Paso County Homeless Veterans Coalition, offered social services, clothing, bedding, food, and hair cuts for the veterans. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

Roughly 235 military veterans - most of them homeless - converged at the Colorado Springs City Auditorium, grabbing backpacks and blankets to help better weather the coming winter.

But homeless advocates hope those supplies aren't needed long.

A greater-than-expected turnout inundated Tuesday's Stand Down - an event to help homeless veterans by offering access to mental health care, job assistance and other services.

Meanwhile, organizers of a parallel effort to end veteran homelessness by the end of the year tried to keep up. Those volunteers want to shelter each person within a day, create housing plans within a week and soon place the veterans in more permanent homes.

Last year, about 150 veterans sought services at the Stand Down. This year, organizers expected about 175 people - but counted 235.

Supplies, such as backpacks, began to run out late Tuesday. Eighty people received haircuts, 90 people got flu shots and 60 to 70 people took Hepatitis C tests, said Joe Carlson, chairman of the El Paso County Homeless Veterans Coalition, which organized the event.

About 100 airmen from Peterson and Schriever Air Force bases escorted the veterans, lugging their new clothes, shoes, knit scarves and caps from station to station.

Pushing a cart with new jeans, blankets and shirts, Andy Anderson, 73, smiled. He served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, but has been homeless at least 15 years - most recently camping in the forest west of Colorado Springs.

"Now, I get clothes to live through the winter," Anderson said.

With so many homeless veterans on hand, volunteers tried to seize a unique opportunity.

Before offering supplies or services, they greeted visitors with a clipboard and a couple questionnaires - one to catalog each visitor, and another to gauge their housing needs.

It was part of an effort spearheaded by Rocky Mountain Human Services' Homes for All Veterans program, which aims to ensure veteran homelessness is brief, rare and non-recurring - a status called "functional zero."

Their work began after last year's Stand Down, when former Mayor Steve Bach announced a goal of ending veteran homelessness by the end of 2015; the goal also was embraced by Mayor John Suthers.

Using a Department of Veterans Affairs grant, the nonprofit has paired veterans with housing vouchers - even offering some of them hotel rooms while they await more permanent housing.

Organizers say they may not meet the Dec. 31 goal, but they will continue working into 2016.

As of early October, organizers met four of their nine objectives, including contacting veterans within 24 hours of one showing up at a shelter.

Veterans also are screened within three days of being sheltered, and personalized housing plans are created in a week's time, according to Homes for All Veterans' most recent report.

Three other objectives appear within reach, including sheltering veterans within a day of meeting them on the streets, and ensuring that 90 percent of veterans stay in housing that was secured for them, the report said.

But keeping contact with unsheltered veterans has proven difficult, due to a need for more outreach personnel.

The number of veterans seeking housing continues to outpace the rate of veterans being housed - a byproduct of the region's dearth of affordable housing, organizers say.

With hundreds of veterans in one place, Tuesday offered the best chance to make headway.

To jump-start their effort, 14 hotel rooms - some for individuals, others for families - were offered for the next 18 days. During that time, meals and mentors will be offered.

"I don't know if we're going to end veteran homelessness, but today will be a big step forward," said Andrew Phelps, Homes for All Veterans' volunteer coordinator.

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