Vision Magazine just published my story about how my husband, Mark, and I first learned about homeless veterans, and why we decided to produce a documentary about it, called "The Invisible Ones: Homeless Combat Veterans." Here's an excerpt:
How many times have you passed up a sleeping figure underneath a blanket or tarp on the darkened streets of your city? Have you ever considered that this could be one of our war heroes?
This question entered my consciousness in the summer of 2007. As partners of a video production company called Crystal Pyramid Productions, my husband, Mark Schulze, and I received a call from the Veterans Administration to document the 20th Annual Stand Down in San Diego, CA. “Stand Down,” we wondered. “What’s that?” We learned that in military parlance, a stand down is when a soldier steps away from combat operations and experiences a momentary rest and relaxation prior to heading back into the fray. Its definition has been extended to name an event which addresses the plight of homeless veterans on the streets of America.
The San Diego Stand Down sustains homeless veterans for three days with hot meals, cots, showers, shaves and haircuts, plus a change of clothing. The veterans can receive medical, dental and holistic treatments, as well as counseling and legal advice from caring volunteers—all in one location. They enjoy camaraderie with fellow veterans and best of all, they don’t have to worry about the “combat” that takes place daily out on the streets.
Robert Van Keuren and Dr. Jon Nachison are the two Vietnam veterans who founded this event. Van Keuren explains in his Stand Down Manual that “Stand Down is a belief in the triumph of the human spirit over extraordinary odds. It grows out of a conviction that the overwhelming number of homeless veterans is unacceptable, and that the veteran community itself must respond. Stand Down is designed to transform the despair and immobility of homelessness into the momentum necessary to get into recovery, resolve legal issues, seek employment, access health services and benefits, reconnect with the community and get off the streets—a very tall order for a three-day event.”
These men opened our eyes to the harsh reality that we have far more homeless veterans sleeping on our streets than most Americans know about. Homeless vets make up about 25 percent, and probably more, of the total homeless population. Dr. Nachison said that the figure of 200,000 across the nation is “the statistic now bandied about,” but he thought it was much too conservative a figure, since homeless veterans are difficult to count. He emphasized that he and Van Keuren had devised Stand Down because they “wanted to send a message to the nation that to have 25 percent of the homeless [as] veterans was a national disgrace.”