Thirty-one of the 711 people who are homeless in Tuolumne County are veterans, a number that has surprised and perplexed people who work in veterans services as well as those who work with the homeless.
“It's upset an awful lot of people,” said Tamara Dockstader, the housing resources director for the Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency.
ATCAA volunteers spent four days in September visiting homeless camps and other places to get a better idea of the number of homeless people in Tuolumne County. Previous counts set that number at less than 200.
Dockstader said of the 31 veterans, 20 said they had been homeless for more than four years. Federal guidelines consider someone chronically homeless if they have been without shelter for more than a year.
All of the veterans interviewed by the ATCAA volunteers said they had been homeless for more than a year. More than half are older than 50.
The results are particularly troubling because of the vast amount of money and services available to veterans, she said.
“You'd like to know it was zero,” Dockstader said.
Homeless veterans are the focus of an event Friday that will offer them an array of services, from dental care to legal help, and provide needed items for the coming winter such as blankets, coats and tents.
Sponsored by AMCAN, which stands for Army, Marines, Coast Guard, Air Force and Navy, the event is known as a Stand Down, a term used during the Vietnam War to describe the time combat soldiers pulled light duty to allow them a week or two of rest.
The term has been co-opted to describe gatherings that provide services in one central place. Many are held around Veterans Day, which is Saturday. The first Stand Down was held in San Diego in 1988.
Debora Kay Esque, a retired Air Force colonel and Sonora resident, started AMCAN with a fellow Air Force retiree Sandra Ackerman, who was a master sergeant flight nurse. The two served together.
They considered offering equine therapy to veterans, but they determined it would be too expensive. Their long-term goal is to establish a community of tiny houses for veterans.
In the meantime, Esque said she felt like it would be beneficial to sponsor a Stand Down since the last one in Tuolumne County was in 2013.
She had worked on Stand Downs in Pleasanton while she was a commander at Travis Air Force Base, her last post before retiring in 2012.
Catholic Charities has also been involved in the planning.
The event is open to homeless veterans only and will start at 8 a.m. at the Tuolumne Veterans Memorial Hall. Breakfast will be cooked by the Tuolumne County Sheriff's Posse, and lunch will be provided.
The Tuolumne County Veterans Service Office will register veterans and be able to advise them on filing claims, said Frank Smart, a Vietnam veteran who staged five Stand Downs here. Smart was responsible for bringing Esque and Kim Garrett of Catholic Charities together to plan this year’s event.
Garrett is a case manager with Catholic Charities and VETFAM, which stands for Veteran Families Supportive Services, Smart said.
“Garrett administers a VA grant that can help some veterans get into housing and
with other issues,” Smart said.
This year, Smilekeepers will determine if a referral for dental services is needed. Ministers will be on hand. Reading glasses will be available.
Backpacks filled with toiletries and warm clothing and tents will be provided by area churches.
Esque said she spent 35 years in the Air Force, traveled the world in the medical services corps and retired only because a knee injury prevented her from being able to run.
“I am truly blessed and want to give back,” she said. “Whether they service two years, 10 years, 15 years, they did serve.”
Dockstader said the number of homeless veterans here is heartbreaking. One of the homeless veterans is a woman who is in her 20s. Four men were older than 70. The census showed 13 of the respondents said lack of money was the primary reason they were homeless.
“They're been lost in the system,” Dockstader said.
The Stand Down will be held from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. Friday at the Veterans Hall on Fir Avenue between Main and Pine streets in downtown Tuolumne. For more information, call Esque at (209) 743-8666 or Smart at (209) 536-0439.