For 12 years, VA Sierra Nevada Health Care System in Reno has conducted its annual Homeless Veteran Stand Down. This year, months of planning proved challenging with the restrictions.

VA staff and dedicated community partners were determined to not cancel this critical event. The stand down prepares homeless Veterans each year for the bitter cold winter months.

Volunteers served 175 homeless Veterans at the event.

Physical distancing was required. To keep homeless Veterans, VA staff and volunteers safe, coordinators strategically structured the five-day event to serve smaller group sizes.

From Monday, September 21 through Friday, September 25, homeless Veterans attended on the day that corresponded to the first letter of their last name. The week before, volunteers and staff gathered to carefully pull together the many donated items during a packing event.  

Western fires and smoke required changes

Three days before the event, another curve ball caused the agile VA staff to completely reconfigure the outside event to an inside event. Northern Nevada had been hard hit by thick smoke due to many massive fires along the western states and air quality that was at “Very Unhealthy” conditions.  

Physically distanced each morning beforehand, screened, and provided masks and sanitizer, each Veteran entered a joyful, calm, yet different looking stand down. After receiving duffle bags safely filled with a warm jacket, sleeping bag, boots, socks, a hat, gloves, toiletries and non-perishable food items, Veterans learned about VA services.  

“I am proof VA changes lives for the better.”

One Marine Corps Veteran attended with a huge smile on his face. “Reno VA has been so good to me. I believe there are a lot of Veterans who deserve and need help but it’s hard to ask. The stand down draws many Veterans because it is not a threatening place and Veterans get needed clothes, supplies and many VA services.”

His advice to Veterans on the streets is that “It’s okay to ask for help. Be honest with yourself and be open-minded to act on the suggestions VA staff provide. VA is here to help and I am living proof that their help changes lives for the better.”   

Reno VA served 175 Homeless Veterans, most whom also received flu shots. Lesson for 2020: Nothing can stop VA and its community partners from caring for our homeless Veterans. Restrictions and the terrible smoke brought challenges, but flexibility and determination prevailed. 

Glenna E. Smith is a public affairs office for the VA Sierra Nevada Health Care System, Reno, NV.

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