Free meals, beauty makeovers, gift sleeping bags and complimentary cellphones brought more than 800 military veterans to the Los Angeles Convention Center on Saturday, but the bigger gift for many could come in the form of permanent homes.
The trove of goodies and services available at the mass Stand Down — the first of its kind in the city of Los Angeles — was welcomed by former sailors, soldiers and Marines. Many planned to stay overnight in a temporary shelter in the Convention Center basement that will remain open through Monday.
Organizers of the event said that the short-term victories — a night on a warm cot, a root canal or a lawyer's advice on how to get a citation dismissed — will become more meaningful if the most troubled veterans also sign up for housing assistance.
"This is just the start," said Ivan Mason, executive director of the Los Angeles office of the nonprofit U.S. Vets, organizer of the event. "We are really trying to find the chronically homeless and the chronically mentally ill. We are looking, at the end of this, at how many of those individuals we can put into permanent housing."
That is no small task in Los Angeles County, where an estimated 4,200 people who served in the armed forces do not have regular homes. That is more than twice as many homeless veterans as in any other local jurisdiction in the United States.
President Obama has pledged to get every homeless veteran off the streets by the end of 2015, a challenge embraced by Los Angeles Mayor
A line of men and women formed outside the Convention Center before dawn Saturday. Some lugged their possessions in trash bags or carry-alls. They waited to be processed and then released into a cavernous hall, where dark curtains divided up work space for dozens of companies and nonprofits.
A mostly graying crowd, including many Vietnam-era veterans, got services as diverse as haircuts, acupuncture treatments and coaching on how to meditate. Lines were longest for a noon meal of hot dogs, chips and lemonade and for access to a used-clothing collection.
Gary Newby, 57, worked for more than two decades as a trucker after leaving the Army in the 1980s but fell on hard times when a job injury ruined his wrist and made it impossible for him to even manipulate a gear shift.
After losing his mobile home, Newby said, he began sleeping in a Westchester park, with occasional stops at a cold-weather shelter at the Veterans Affairs facility in West Los Angeles. He was thrilled Saturday to have a bad tooth pulled and to get a meal and a new rainbow-colored shirt. He looked forward to a job-counseling session on Sunday.
"Some people don't even want to look at us. They don't want to look us in the eye," Newby said. "Here, there is a little hope. You know what I mean?"
Others said more services are still needed. Anthony Ford, 57, lost his job as a house painter and said he has not been able to find work since. The Army veteran bemoaned the lack of employment for older workers like him and said there seem to be more programs for vets who had severe trauma or substance abuse problems, rather than those who had remained on the straight and narrow.
"I was honorably discharged. I didn't get blown up in Vietnam. I don't fit the profile. But a veteran is a veteran is a veteran." Ford said. "All I want is a job and to get out of my situation."
Charlie Pacello, a veteran officer from the Air Force, offered counseling on mindfulness Saturday. He said one of the most important lessons for his fellow veterans is that help can be found.
"It's so important to get the word out that there are people ready to serve them and to help heal their wounds," Pacello said, "so they can make that return journey home and recover who they really are."