Miami’s Operation Stand Down brings hope to homeless vets

 
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aburch@MiamiHerald.com

U.S. Army veteran Michael Malichuk has been homeless for more than a decade after his day labor pay simply wasn’t enough. A mugger robbed him of much of his hearing eight years ago, rupturing his one good ear drum, he says. And six months ago, a thief robbed him of his hearing aid. He lives on the grounds of a church near downtown Miami.

With hearing loss, high blood pressure and no home, Malichuk arrived at a veteran outreach program at the American Legion looking for his next, better chapter.

“I didn’t make enough money to pay my rent so I ended up losing everything’’ says the bearded Malichuk, 65, who served as stateside in the Army in the early 1970s. “I am hoping I can get some help here. I am getting too old to be in the streets.’’

Volunteers had scouted South Florida to find veterans who were homeless or perilously close -- some still scarred by combat duty years before -- to bring them to a tent city shelter at the American Legion Post 29. For three days, the homeless and at-risk veterans will stay here and receive a host of social services.

But first a welcome and this message: You are safe, no one will steal from you, no one will arrest you, a gentle way to diffuse the chaos of street living.

Then, showers, new clothes, haircuts and meals. After that, veterans from Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties begin what Florida Veterans Foundation organizers believe is the first step towards healing and stability: medical and mental health care, housing, employment and legal assistance.

They call this community intervention effort, Stand Down, a military term used during war to remove exhausted combat units from the battlefield to rest and recover in a safe and secure place.

And this tent city, full of veterans who somehow lost their way, is called Camp Hope.

“This weekend will be be magical for a lot of these men and women. They will actually be transformed through comraderie, the opportunity to talk to other vets and services,’’ said Lt. Col. Tony Colmenares, retired US Marine Corp who is directing the South Florida Homeless Veterans Stand Down. “This is also about the veterans truly understanding that the community cares, that they have not been forgotten.’’

On late Friday afternoon, more than 100 veterans who served in wars dating back to Vietnam, had checked into the camp, some heading straight for showers or to grab a meal. Some swapped war and street stories. Still others retreated to the quiet of the cots in the tents.

“Some of the vets are isolated, they don’t know that help is available to them,’’ said Volunteer Coordinator Janette Chandler, Family Readiness Support Assistant of the U.S. Army 841st Engineer Batallion. “So part of our mission is not just getting them here but getting to them, talking to them so we can understand their needs.’’

The camp, open through Sunday, was erected on the property of the American Legion, 6445 NE Seventh Ave. The tents house 120 cot beds with another 20 inside the building for women and children. Signs are posted on the grounds reminding visitors of the dates and losses of war: Battle of Bulge, 66,500. Each sign also has the number 22, a nod to the daily number of veteran suicides.

They arrived by bus, bikes and on foot. Some left behind the cardboard homes where they live, others came from shelters. One Air Force veteran lives in a van parked at a convenience store in Fort Lauderdale. Another Navy veteran arrived a week ago from Atlanta looking for a better life in South Florida.

After check-in, each was screened for benefit eligiblity. But whether they qualified or not, they were given food, clothing and access to services. The event even provided services for the veteran’s pets if they brought them.

On Saturday, Miami-Dade Judge Steve Leifman will preside over a court for veterans to dispose of misdemeanor cases such as petty theft, criminal mischief and traffic infractions. The legal team also will work to expunge or seal some cases, which can be barriers to jobs and housing. Singer Connie Francis also will be there to encourage the veterans.

Chris Bullock, a Marine, who served two tours of duty in Iraq and Kuwait, struggled with both drugs and alcohol. A telephone technician by trade, he is unemployed and has some health issues but is now in a 12-step program.

“For a while I was living behind a building. Day to day I was just trying to figure out how to survive and ways to feed myself. But now I am in a 12-step program and staying at a shelter,’’ said Bullock, 52. “I am just trying to get some more help so I get my life together.’’

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