VA Stand Down

SCServes Haley Rodgers (left) works with Army veteran Nathaniel Sims during the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center 18th annual Stand Down Against Homelessness on Friday, Oct. 13 at the VA Community Resource and Referral Center in North Charleston. The event offered medical screenings and assistance, clothing, food, haircuts and legal counseling for homeless veterans and veterans in the greater Charleston area. Brad Nettles/Staff

When Nathaniel Sims was young, he had two dreams: Serve in the military and become a teacher.

He served in the Army for four years, from 1979 to 1983. Now, he has almost completed his teaching degree. He wants to stay in the area and teach at an elementary or middle school. 

He just needs a little bit of aid to cross the finish line.

"Once I finish my education, I won't need any more help," Sims said.

Sims was hoping to find some of that help at a Veterans Affairs event Friday morning. The local arm of the VA has used the annual event, called Stand Down Against Homelessness, to make a slew of resources available to homeless veterans and veterans like Sims, who are not homeless but need some aid.

Year after year, the numbers of people who come to the event have dwindled The Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center's director of mental health, Dr. Hugh Myrick, said. It's a sign the VA is doing its job. 

Fewer veterans are homeless today than when the event began, he said. At its height, the VA served 2,400 people at Stand Down. For 14 years, the event was held in the Park Circle neighborhood of North Charleston. For the past four years, it has been held at the Community Resource and Referral Center, also in North Charleston.

On Friday morning, a couple hundred local veterans wandered the booths inside and outside the resource center. They waited in line for haircuts, ate a meal, and picked up outfits from Goodwill and sleeping bags supplied by the VA. Medical staff offered health screenings.

Myrick said the Stand Down event today is more than anything else meant to show what the VA offers every day, year round at the resource center.

"You don't have to wait for Stand Down," Myrick said. 

He said the VA keeps close track of homeless veterans in the area. They often fall into homelessness because of mental illness or substance use issues, along with "just plain bad luck," Myrick said.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated there were 738 homeless veterans in South Carolina in 2016. There were more than 39,000 homeless veterans nationwide, according to HUD.

Since Myrick began at the VA about 20 years ago, staff in the mental health department has increased nearly five-fold to meet the mental health needs of veterans, he said. Younger veterans face "near homelessness" relatively often, Myrick said, but the improvements in help for veterans in need have improved in his time at the VA.

"The changes I've seen are just amazing," he said.

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The number of people the VA has helped secure housing in the area has increased, too. 

The Department of Housing and Urban Development gives vouchers to veterans to help them afford housing through the VA's Supportive Housing Program. A VA spokeswoman said 649 such vouchers have been given out this year in the local VA's jurisdiction, an increase from 584 in 2016. Of the vouchers given this year, 290 were for housing aid in Charleston. 

Walter Scott Jr. receives one of those vouchers to pay for his home in North Charleston. Friday was his third time at the Stand Down event, and he said it was the smoothest he's seen yet.

"We just kept moving on down the line," he said.

There are similar Stand Down events in Savannah and Myrtle Beach. Both were in September this year. 

Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-937-5594. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.

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