Arizona Serve Prescott VISTA member Phoebe Sheldon-Young reflects on our 2014 9/11 Day of Service helping with the Arizona StandDown for Homeless Veterans in Prescott Valley.
Volunteering at the Arizona StandDown for Homeless Veterans in Prescott Valley on September 16th and 17th, I sat with clipboard in hand, in my official AmeriCorps VISTA polo shirt, and asked each person who came to my table a long series of questions about their lives. Sometimes I felt as if the questions, about topics like medical conditions, drug use, and history of abuse, were too prying and personal to ask of strangers. But the veterans seemed more than willing to share about themselves, in the name of gathering accurate data, with the possibility of receiving the support they needed.
I spoke with individuals from countless different walks of life. Some veterans came accompanied by family members or service dogs, while others seemed far too accustomed to being alone. Some on foot, some in wheelchairs, some on the arm of a caretaker. Some had stayed on a friend's couch the night before, others in their car, or in a transitional housing facility for veterans. As I listened to unique story after unique story, my concept of “homeless” expanded and became more complex. Yes, a few of the vets who came to receive services had slept under a bridge or in the woods the night before, but some actually owned or rented houses, apartments, or trailers, and many more were stuck somewhere in limbo between the security of calling a place home and the looming possibility of losing it all.
There were many veterans from Vietnam, old enough to be my grandparents, intermixed with a few startlingly young vets in their twenties, reminding me that this experience could have been mine; helping me relate to those I met. Though there was always a distance between myself and the interviewees. How could I ever truly relate? How could I know what it is to wake up each morning or try to sleep each night suffering from the symptoms of war-induced PTSD or traumatic brain injury? And to simultaneously struggle to maintain a steady job, pay rent or child support, and keep food in the fridge.
But they didn't come to talk to me, and I don't think they solely came to sign up for food stamps, get a hair cut, or a new pair of boots. Those things can't hurt, but I think what many of the vets were looking for on those two days was a sense of community. I believe they came to be seen and understood by one another, to feel they belonged to a close-knit, resilient family of others with similar experiences. In a culture that leaves so many who live this struggle invisible, unassisted, and alone, I witnessed a momentary glimpse of solidarity.