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When you’re in the military, much of your time is spent in the field. Service members look forward to that brief period following their return when they get some time to shower, clean their clothes, get a hair cut, and just relax. It’s called a “stand down.”

When the Department of Veterans Affairs started hosting stand downs for homeless veterans a couple of decades ago, it was the intention to welcome veterans in from the streets to get a shower, hair cut, and clean clothes.  Over the years stand downs have evolved somewhat, but took a major leap forward 3 years ago at Winterhaven, DC’s stand down, when housing became a primary concern.

I attended my first Winterhaven meeting in 2009. After finding out that 300 veterans were expected to attend, I wondered why we would allow any of those veterans to return to the streets. So I asked the question. That same year we created a wing just for housing services, along with the goal to make sure that no veteran attending Winterhaven be forced to return to the streets.  That meant offering housing options from emergency shelter to permanent supportive housing for those experiencing any and all stages of homelessness.

This year, on January 21, almost 500 veterans came throughout the VA Medical Center doors for Winterhaven.  Our goal again was that none should return to the streets, but our focus extended beyond one night of housing. We addressed all the needs that veterans would face in the days and months to come – from housing, to food, to medical care.
Me with Eric Shinseki, US Secretary of Veterans Affairs, at Winterhaven
Community partners were engaged in an unprecedented way, showing that partnerships amongst service providers are needed to end homelessness for veterans in DC. I’m happy to say that these partnerships are well within the works.
These partnerships were further emphasized at this year’s Winterhaven, showcasing the booths of the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) grantees, including Friendship Place, in the Medical Center’s lobby. This set-up allowed at-risk or recently homeless veterans to get immediate help without snaking through the maze of booths that make up Winterhaven.  This highlighting of SSVF underlines the partnerships that the VA and community partners are forming, as well as the resources being put into homelessness prevention and rapid re-housing for veterans.
The District is now on pace to end homelessness for veterans, but still needs to work very hard to accomplish its goals. DC can, however, take a measure of pride serving as the flagship of the the VA.  Anyone who was at Winterhaven this year, including me, could feel the energy and hope in the air.
Geoff Millard

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