Hundreds of volunteers turned out over the weekend to help 700 needy veterans at the biannual East Bay Stand Down at the Alameda County Fairgrounds.
Over the course of the four-day campout, the homeless veterans received spcial services that included everything that someone living on the streets could need -- from doctors, dental treatment and vision services to 12-step programs. They also were given sleeping bags, clean clothes and new shoes as well as ditty bags decorated by local youths.
The Stand Down brought veterans the company of their peers, like Mike Gainer, who received the benefits of two prior stand downs and came back this year to volunteer as a tent leader.
Gainer joined the Army in 1976, when he was 17, and struggled after he left the service in 1983, at times becoming homeless. He's now a peer counselor in Oakland, and although he says he's not where he wants to be yet, he's on the way. Gainer took vacation time to dedicate a long weekend to help the people who helped him, and he is working with the 19 vets bunking with him in Tent C.
"I'm trying to help them coordinate and engage in services," he said.
Gainer, who admits he's energetic by nature, said he has to work hard to contain his enthusiasm.
"I had to tone it down -- I don't want to burn out," he said.
Gainer's enthusiasm came through, though, as he talked with one of his bunk mates, Ron Gaskell, going over a list of services Gaskell hoped to receive before leaving Sunday.
Gaskell, who served in the Army from 1973 to 1985 and in the National Guard from 1988 to 1994, is homeless -- one of an estimated 15,000 homeless vets in Northern California.
Not everyone can be helped, Gainer said, noting that one of his clients wouldn't come, despite the services the Stand Down offers.
Job placement help was available, along with residential programs and legal and tax advice. The Social Security Administration was on hand, as was the California Department of Motor Vehicles and even a court.
That court was started in 2000 by Pleasanton Judge Ron Hyde after he learned about legal services offered at the original stand down, which is still held annually in San Diego.
"I decided because we're called East Bay Stand Down, we should have more than Alameda courts here," Hyde said. "This was the first multi-jurisdictional homeless court in the U.S."
The Stand Down may help many, but it's not easy work. Some of the veterans have post-traumatic stress disorder, or alcohol or drug problems. Some have emotional problems.
Although no one from the Tri-Valley was there to receive services, volunteers from Pleasanton and Contra Costa County, including judges, came to help.
That included Congressman Jerry McNerney(D-Pleasanton), who was in town for the weekend before heading back to Washington for Tuesday's vote in the House of Representatives on the jobs bill the Senate passed last Wednesday.