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In military language, a Stand Down is period of time when combat troops can rest.
But for the homeless veterans community, Stand Down events are an opportunity to receive creature comforts and critical social services.
Manatee County is holding its 21st annual Stand Down on Saturday at the Manatee County Fairgrounds in Palmetto. Edwin Robinson is the veterans case manager at Turning Points, a Bradenton organization which assists the homeless. He said those in need will be provided meals, showers and hygiene products and an array of critical services from mental and general health screening to dental exams. The VA will provide information on benefits and will provide such items as backpacks and sleeping bags.
Additionally, there will be a mobile Amnesty Court run by the 12th Judicial Circuit Court where veterans can plead misdemeanor fines before a Manatee County Judge.
“The truth of the matter is if those fines aren’t paid, then that person really can’t do much of anything,” said Robinson. “So when a client comes before Amnesty Court, they can have those fines reduced or in many cases, removed. Last year, the court was able to remove over $18,000 dollars in fines.
According to the latest findings of a national report on living standards, 44 percent of Manatee County’s population balances on the brink of homelessness. Add a lack of housing to the mix and it’s no surprise to learn an increasing number of citizens in Manatee County and across the nation are facing difficult circumstances.
“Homelessness does not have a demographic,” said Robinson. “It’s not a black thing, a Hispanic thing or a single male drug addict thing. Homelessness is a family thing. There are folks who say that they are one to two paychecks away from being homeless. So sometimes our at-risk population is the larger of our population than it is the literal homeless,” he added. “There are folks right now who are working but are not making enough money. So now a decision has to be made. Do I keep the lights on or do I put food on the table? And it literally is coming down to those two types of extreme decisions. Anybody and everybody can be affected by it regardless of what socioeconomic status you’re in.”
As the veteran’s case manager at Turning Points, Robinson administers federal grants that can provide temporary financial assistance to help veterans gain housing stability. But he said ending homelessness isn’t just about housing. It’s about the capacity to sustain long-term housing through resources that promote self-sufficiency.
“The way we approach long-term housing is once we get them housed, that’s where we start connecting the veteran to what we call wraparound services,” said Robinson. “All of those services within our community that help the veteran maintain housing stability. That’s where our community partners come in because sometimes it is about employment, sometimes it might be about a veteran having access to physical and mental health services and sometimes it’s about them accessing their benefits through VA.”
Robinson said in recent years, he’s seen a deeper understanding concerning the issue of homelessness.
“People are starting to remove their own stigmas,” he said.
“It’s not just a social service problem, it is a community issue and it’s going to take the entire community to address it. Homelessness in Manatee County or anywhere in the nation, is not going to be solved by one thing, or one event, or one agency. It really is going to have to take a collaborative effort from the public and the private sector. I’ve heard it said that it’s amazing what happens when no one cares about who gets the credit. At the end of the day, the veteran wins.”
For all of the challenging work, Robinson says progress is being made. In 2017, Turning Points housed 51 veterans and last year they found homes for 62 veterans.
“One of my best stories is that I had a gentleman who served in the United States Marine Corps,” said Robinson. “He had been on street for about four years when I met him. Around November of last year, we found a place that met his needs and met the restrictions that he had because of the challenges he had in his background and we were able to restore the pride and honor that all of us had when we put a uniform on. I just want people to know that homelessness is not a concept. These are real people.”