Carl Olsen and Jim Gehring of the Presque Isle Elks Lodge, which collects furniture to help formerly homeless veterans. Courtesy photo

With the postponement of the annual Homeless Veterans Stand Down, regional service agencies and others who support veterans in Maine are scrambling to cover the loss of a centralized event where the state’s homeless veterans could gather to receive the support they need.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced the event, held at Togus VA Medical Center in Augusta, to take on a new form. In past years, Veterans Affairs staff and volunteers provided food, clothing and health screenings to homeless and at-risk veterans, who also received referrals for employment, housing, health care, substance use treatment and mental-health counseling.

This year, thanks in part to an infusion of federal money to address homelessness, other agencies across the state are stepping in by focusing their work on veterans who need assistance with things like medical care, food security and employment services.

In addition, the Maine Bureau of Veterans’ Services is partnering with Maine Veterans in Need to arrange multiple mini-Stand Downs across the state this fall, in an effort to bring supplies and services closer to those who would benefit from them. The events, which were still being scheduled, would involve the distribution of items like hygiene kits, care packages and cold-weather clothing.

But they will not involve personal medical services such as flu shots, medical checkups and mental health evaluations, as in the past.

“The way we are looking at it right now, anything is better than nothing,” said Jarad Greeley, homeless veterans coordinator at the bureau. “The advantage of doing multiple locations instead of one is that it limits the transportation of veterans. If we can go to the veterans themselves, it eliminates a lot of travel.”

David Hassen, who oversees veterans activities for the Maine Elks, said lack of health check-ups and administrative assistance would be the biggest loss. The mini-Stand Downs will help, and their success will depend on service organizations supporting the new effort, he said.

Jim Gehring of the Presque Isle Elks, Lodge #1954, welcomes the concept of a regional Stand Down.

“The Stand Down was great, if you were in walking distance of the Togus campus or if you were in a community with the ability to get veterans transportation to Togus,” he said. “But there’s no veteran transportation up here, so we get by with a little help from our communities.”

The Elks used to arrange transportation to the annual event, but for a variety of reasons – a lack of trust in government and fear of admitting to being homeless chief among themmany veterans didn’t bother to make the trip, Gehring said. The Elks and other groups have improvised.

“Instead of doing a Stand Down, we are coming in through the back door with our own supplies,” Gehring said. “We can give the veterans what they need, and they don’t identify us as the government, so they trust us.”

There are about 140 homeless veterans in Maine, according to state statistics. That number is up from about 100 before the pandemic, Greeley said.

In an interesting twist caused by the pandemic, the Maine Bureau of Veterans’ Services has “a ton of extra money” to spend on homeless services through the CARES Act, Greeley said. The bill funneled $17.2 billion to the Veterans Health Administration and increased funding for homeless programs.

“Pre-COVID, those funds were hard to find. I always had to ask other organizations – the Elks, the Legion, the VFWs – if they could put up the tab to put someone in a motel for a couple of nights,” Greeley said. “Now, I don’t have to ask them, which means they can do other things.”

Those agencies and others like Goodwill Northern New England, Easter Seals and Pinetree Legal are filling needs based on their specializations, said Jonathan Barczyk, acting public affairs officer for the VA Maine Healthcare System.

“We’re not replacing the Stand Down, but we are continuing to go about providing services and connecting veterans with the resources that best suit their needs, and a lot of that is through a number of community partnerships that we have with different organizations across the state,” he said.

Goodwill is focusing on job services by pairing veterans with both a career adviser and life navigator – “a social-worker type position” – said Heather Steeves, external communications manager.

“We know, for veterans, it’s often not just resume that gets in the way of long-term success,” she said. “It can be other life factors, such as mental health, homelessness or food insecurity. If they need to be connected to food stamps, we will help them with that. Any issue they might have in their life, we will work with them holistically, so they can succeed in the long run. We will stay with them until they reach stability.”

The Goodwill life navigator helps mitigate the barriers at home that inhibit productivity at work. The focus is timely. Goodwill served 74 veterans between July 1, 2018, and June 30, 2019. The following calendar year, which included job losses because of the pandemic, the number of veterans seeking job services through the nonprofit nearly doubled to 132, Steeves said.

The used-furniture warehouse of the Presque Isle Elks. Courtesy photo

Up north in Presque Isle, the Elks Lodge operates a warehouse-size furniture bank, providing free furniture, appliances and other items for veterans who are transitioning from homelessness to safe and secure housing, Gehring said. The Elks collect furniture by donation and through a company that secures used hotel-room furniture.

“They often have no clothes, no furniture – basically nothing, including no money,” Gehring said. “We can take a vet and his family and get them completely set up in an apartment, including everything you need to start your life over again. That is what we do.”

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