The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 67,495 veterans are homeless on any given night, including an estimated 18,633 in California. A survey done in Santa Barbara last year found 143 homeless veterans in our county — 15 percent of the total surveyed — and, of those, 60 percent had mental health problems. For the last several months, dozens of organizations and groups have been meeting with this information in mind, strategizing about to put on an event that would provide services for what is often a forgotten and vulnerable population.
That event, Stand Down Santa Barbara, is this Saturday at the Santa Maria Fair Park, 937 South Thornburg Street, the culmination of more than a year of work by several key individuals. It was the vision of 5th District County Supervisor Steve Lavagnino, whose father, Santa Maria Mayor Larry Lavagnino, served in the Navy. Larry got the idea from watching a 60 Minutes episode about Stand Down in San Diego, which has been running since 1988 and has served more than 200,000 veterans.
The event is open to any veteran — homeless or not — and the first 500 are guaranteed meals. Vets are encouraged to preregister, but even if they haven’t, they can show up the day of. “We’ll take anybody,” Supervisor Lavagnino said. The day will begin at 7 a.m. with a pancake breakfast, showers, and haircuts. A morning of service offerings will be followed by a brown bag lunch, and for dinner, a Santa Maria–style barbecue sponsored by the Chumash Indians. “It’s going to be a first-class day in paradise,” Lavagnino said.
In between, veterans will be privy to pretty much any service imaginable. There will be medical, vision, and hearing services. Dentists will be doing screenings to see if follow-up dentist trips are needed. Lawyers will be on-hand to help get tickets or other legal trouble taken care of. Chaplain services will be available, and the DMV will be making photo IDs for veterans. The Department of Defense sent a huge shipment of surplus clothing, including mittens and scarves. Job services will be available, as will counseling. “A lot of people are one benefit check away from being homeless,” said Lavagnino, who hopes to make Stand Down an annual event in this county. “We want to connect these guys back to the workforce.”
Vandenberg is supplying more than 100 service men and women to serve as tour guides for the veterans as they work their way around the fairgrounds. Transportation to and from the event is going to be available from Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. Vets can bring their pets and children — pets can be groomed while there will be a bounce house and video games for kids. “There’s really no excuse not to be there,” Lavagnino said.
They are one of many groups pitching in, from a variety of angles. “I thought this was a good idea, but more than 100 organizations throughout the county have joined together to help,” Lavagnino said.
One of the dozens of organizations ready to help is Direct Relief International, which is providing 500 personal care kits for the afternoon. The kits include items such as soap, shampoo, combs, lotion, and band-aids. The nonprofit was contacted by Lavignino several months ago. “It was something we wanted to do,” said Damon Taugher, director of U.S. programs for Goleta-based Direct Relief International. “It’s been really cool to see the community come together for this, and to be able to play a small role.”
The total budget for the event was about $30,000, with no taxpayer money spent except for some staff time spent by the county’s Social Services Department.
For more information on the event, visit www.sbcountystanddown.com.