BATTLE CREEK, Mich. –
This is the first part of a story series on homeless veteran outreach and surplus property.
A fresh pair of socks, a haircut, a hot meal.
Humble offerings individually, but together they represent the kind of freebie assortment that hundreds of communities around the nation offer each year to local homeless and at-risk veteran populations during “stand down” events.
Veteran stand downs – the name borrowed from a military term for a temporary break in high-readiness operational posture – usually run a day or two each year and are promoted primarily by a mix of community groups and non-profits, local governments, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Typically held at armories, churches, community event centers or VA facility parking lots, the stand down aims to draw as many homeless or struggling veterans as possible and link them up with medical professionals, housing and employment specialists, and general social worker types who can help ensure they receive any government benefits or assistance they qualify for.
“It’s important that the homeless and at-risk veteran community feels seen. It’s important for those who contributed to hear ‘thank you,’” said Rachel Wustman, a veterans services outreach specialist for Kent County in southwest Michigan who directed the 2022 Grand Rapids stand down. “It’s also important to have things for them to take away, as a physical reminder.”
A stand down’s makeup is unique to each community’s size and need of its at-risk veteran population. But behind the scenes at nearly all of them, Defense Logistics Agency Disposition Services and its federal property transfer authority plays a key role in helping communities maximize their outreach ability.
As it turns out, the experts roundly agree than an essential element for hosting an effective stand down is the availability of surplus Defense Department property. Camo backpacks, winter gloves, thermal underwear, fleece hoodies – valuable things people can keep and use – that’s what gets people to come out. The kind of personal items DLA has a long and storied history of finding new users for any time the military upgrades.
Surplus property is arguably the main course among standard stand down offerings. In fact, many stand downs implement a signature or stamp system to ensure attendees visit the various resource and assistance booths on site before they are allowed to peruse surplus items. And virtually to a person, stand down planners agree that if there's any single military surplus item with the power to draw in attendees above all others, it's boots.
“Everybody wants a pair of boots. Everything else is secondary,” said Don Donahue, a Chicago-based VA outreach coordinator who has procured DOD surplus items for the city’s twice-annual stand downs since 2014. “This year, we have 400 pairs of boots. Used to be, if you didn’t show up early, you weren’t going to get a pair of boots. Now, 95% of people who walk in the door get what they need. DOD surplus is a big draw for the stand downs. A lot of the vets really like receiving the equipment. For the ones who are truly homeless, the boots, duffels and coats are huge. Absolutely essential.”
Donahue said the Chicago summer and winter stand downs serve up to 450 area veterans who are either currently homeless, in shelters or transitional housing, or have successfully made it into a steady long-term housing situation but continue to visit the events for the sense of community.
“The boot giveaway is definitely the biggest draw, no question. The stand down wouldn’t really work without it,” said Brian McLaughlin, a Forest Park Veterans Center psychologist who serves as a sort of floor manager during Chicago’s stand downs. He said sleeping bags and wool blankets are “a big hit” as well, because even if they get wet when used outdoors, they retain warmth.
McLaughlin explained how DLA military surplus transfers to the VA help improve the lives of stand down attendees on multiple levels.
“For one, the surplus is a tangible way we are taking care of veterans. That should matter to taxpayers,” McLaughlin said. “Also, there’s a community of people that come together during these stand downs. Long term, any kind of preventative care we provide them is economically wise. People who are less depressed go for walks, have less neuropathy and don’t have things happen like getting their toes cut off [from diabetes]. You’re creating a situation where people feel less alone and feel better about themselves. A chance for them to get loved on. The surplus is a doorway where the vets are then exposed to other stuff. It’s the stuff on the other side of the door that makes the difference.”
Veterans Administration social worker Amanda Briggs has requisitioned used personal items from DLA Disposition Services for the Grand Rapids stand down since 2016, and for the Saginaw event prior to that. She agreed that “boots are a big one,” and demand is always high for any winter gear that coordinators can get.
“The surplus, realistically, is the biggest draw to a stand down,” she said, noting that veterans often showed a “wonderful nostalgia” for items they associated with their national service. Like McLaughlin, Briggs pointed out both immediate and bigger picture impacts that a steady stream of surplus items allows for.
“These events are for veterans in crisis, who are homeless, who are struggling financially, so being able to come through and get a bunch of nice, warm gear, they’re getting things they otherwise would not have been able to afford, and without it, it would honestly make winter more dangerous at times for those who are spending a good chunk of their day or night outside,” Briggs said. “Longer term, it protects people, keeps them out of ERs, prevents hospitalizations for silly things like hypothermia, and it engenders good will. It’s a nice thing for veterans to come through and realize ‘my VA does care about me and look at these nice things they brought to the table today.’ It’s just all-around great.”
Briggs said that while the Grand Rapids area is very veteran friendly and has “a ton” of resources, they are still serving close to 200 confirmed veterans each stand down. She begins requisitioning property from DLA property disposal sites in the months leading up to the event and has some storage space that stays “pretty full.” The 2022 event that took place in August – Grand Rapids’ first since the start of the pandemic – saw a dozen pallets worth of surplus shoes, clothing, and bags from DLA sites handed out in just four hours.
“We would be in trouble without [DLA],” Briggs said.
Her colleague John Koch, a local VA veterans justice outreach coordinator, helps to screen used and excess DLA property online and place orders for the items given away at stand downs in Grand Rapids and the Michigan cities of Allegan, Muskegon, and sometimes Kalamazoo. He said he likes to try and “shake up” his item ordering so it’s not the exact same surplus every year. But regardless of what his office manages to get ahold of from year to year, he agreed that maintaining the overall flow of items from DLA was critical to the VA’s sustained outreach.
“If we did a stand down one year and there isn’t surplus, it’s likely we’d cut our participant number in half the next year,” Koch said. “It’s that essential.”