Rambo, a big, bushy 7-year-old German shepherd is a great companion for Michael Mitchell, an Army veteran who relies on his dog for peace of mind, safety and security.
On Tuesday during the 23rd annual Stand Down for Colorado’s Homeless Veterans, it was Mitchell’s turn to give back to Rambo by getting him free veterinary care.
The 44-year-old former Army aircraft refueler, who served from 1997 to 2007, said he was was thrilled he could get care for his dog.
Fellow veteran Robin Bullock, 65, heard about the Stand Down while at a Veteran Affairs clinic and decided to stop by for a haircut and free blankets.
Bullock, who served in the Navy in the late 1970s, has been living out of his car for 14 months with no plans of changing.
He was escorted by Senior Airman Luke Rijfkogel, an Air Force reservist stationed at Schriever Space Force Base.
Rijfkogel said he volunteered so he could get to know veterans and hear their stories while helping them.
Dozens of Space Force guardians and Air Force airmen volunteered to walk with a veteran – one on one – as they moved from booth to booth in the First Baptist Church parking lot in downtown Colorado Springs. With COVID-19 still very prevalent, it was the second consecutive year the event was held outdoors.
Some of the more than four dozen organizations with booths included El Paso County Veteran Services, American Red Cross.
New this year is I Support the Girls, an international nonprofit that provides essential hygiene products to homeless women. Tess Key, who took over the local chapter along with her husband in 2019, said it is sometimes difficult to persuade event organizers to allow her group to participate.
She said she was grateful that the El Paso County Homeless Veteran Coalition, which puts on the annual event, was willing to give them a spot.
“Homeless women are invisible and have to be for safety reasons,” Key said. “There are probably a lot of men here representing for their partners.”
The group handed out hygiene products, underwear and bras.
“Even if a man doesn’t need these items, it isn’t a bad idea to carry them, because someone in his life probably does,” Key said.
In addition to connecting homeless veterans to services, they could also get a flu shot, COVID-19 vaccination and substance abuse counseling.
But a major focus remained on making sure veterans can keep warm during the cold months ahead.
“The services we provide are designed to assist those who truly want a hand up to get out of their situation and those who are going to be living outside,” said Brian Wess, chairman of the board of directors for the El Paso County Homeless Veteran Coalition. “We make sure the services and supplies that they get will get them through the wintertime because the last thing that we want is a veteran dying in one of our winters and unfortunately it does happen every year.”
The coalition is aware of as many as 350 homeless veterans in the region, not including those flying under the radar.
“In a country as wealthy as ours, the fact that we have any homeless veterans is a disgrace,” he said.
The government provided free military surplus items. The coalition used grant and general funds to purchase other gear including boots, jackets and blankets.
The El Paso County Homeless Veteran Coalition is an all-volunteer nonprofit organization with an estimated 98% of donations going to veterans.
The coalition hasn’t been running its transitional housing initiative since COVID-19 began because they don’t have a place to safely house veterans for 30-45 days. But the organization hopes the program can begin again next year.
The coalition also runs a year-round homeless prevention program, paying things like utility bills and rent for veterans in need.
Lt. Col. Michael Schriever logistic officer on the board of directors and commander of the 2nd Space Operations Squadron at Schriever Space Force Base, which was named for his grandfather, is a big supporter of the mission.
“We give out about $6,000 a month in our homeless prevention program,” Schriever said. “It keeps veterans off the streets before they become homeless. We’ve used the general fund to pay utilities, back rent and fixing cars so they can get to work.”
Donations remain key.
Learn more about the coalition and how to donate at epchvc.org.
“All the donations that come in are critical for us to keep our operations going,” Wess said.
Those interested in volunteering with the El Paso County Homeless Veteran Coalition can learn more by attending a monthly meeting the second Thursday of each month at 5:30 p.m. at VFW Post 101 at 702 S. Tejon St.