- The Washington Times - Friday, January 9, 2009

Washington DC VA Medical Center officials say they are planning for as many as 800 homeless veterans Saturday at their annual medical-screenings and employment-services event.

Officials said 381 homeless veterans had registered by Thursday, compared with 200 at this time last year. They also said 11 female homeless veterans were among those registered and that only one attended the 2008 event.

The annual Winterhaven Homeless Veterans Stand Down will offer such services as physicals, flu shots, hearing and vision tests and mental health assessments, as well as chaplain services and free haircuts and manicures, said Kevin Morton, acting coordinator for the Health Care for Homeless Veterans Program.

He said the event also will include a women’s clinic for the increasing number of the homeless female veterans in the District. Free manicures and hand massages will be provided by the Dudley Beauty College of Washington. Shuttles at the hospital will be available to transport female veterans to the college at 2031 Rhode Island Ave. NE for a day at the salon.

Homeless veterans must visit 15 stations that will cover the first floor of the medical center at 50 Irving St. NW and parts of the basement. Women must attend 12 mandatory stations — including the women’s health clinic — and three optional stations. Men must visit 11 mandatory stations and four optional stations. All veterans are required to stop at the station for HIV education. Then they will receive a hot lunch and a laundry bag with donated goods such as socks, hats, mittens, underwear and clean coats and sweaters donated by Zips Dry Cleaners.

Winterhaven has become a major event at the hospital over 15 years, though it began under the name Fifth Mission.

“We want to ensure that we provided homeless veterans a comfortable and safe haven,” said Paula Gorman, medical center assistant director.

Miss Gorman said the event is critical in introducing homeless veterans to the hospital and the Department of Veterans Affairs so they can obtain medical care and education.

However, many homeless veterans feel uncomfortable coming to the medical center during regular business hours. Winterhaven provides a private time, when the clinic is closed, to get them through the doors. The fair also offers them shelter during the winter, when they are in the greatest need, Miss Gorman said.

Many homeless shelters in the District close Saturday mornings, leaving the veterans on the streets again.

“We have vehicles ready to pick up these vets and bring them to the medical center,” she said.

D.C. native Clayton McGee, a 55-year-old Navy veteran, once homeless, is now working for the medical center’s Social Work Services department through the Compensated Work Therapy (CWT) program. The six-month program develops necessary job skills to prepare homeless veterans to re-enter the work force.

Mr. McGee joined the Navy when he was 18 to escape an abusive home life. He spent eight years in the service, but he fell into drug abuse and dealing upon leaving.

“I was sick and tired of the way I was living,” he said. “I wanted to say I stood for something.”

He started living at the Southeast Veterans Center in February. He has been with the CWT program since October. Mr. McGee is grateful for his supportive co-workers at Social Work Services. They always treat him like family, he said.

“They give me a lot of instruction and hope,” he said. “When I drop the ball, they say, ‘pick it back up.’”

Through the program, Mr. McGee has had the opportunity to develop his people skills and now he hopes to work with people when he’s done with the program. He wants to receive training to become a Certified Addiction Counselor.

Mr. McGee said he plans to be at Winterhaven for the duration. Some of the veterans he informed about the event are among the 381 registered. Mr. McGee says it’s a way for him to give back.

“I’m still a work in progress,” he said. “There’s still more to be revealed. I’m happy.”

Miss Gorman said the veterans and the staff have a camaraderie, so the veterans do not feel threatened.

Winterhaven is sponsored by the hospital and organized with help from many local veteran service groups. Roughly 600 volunteers from within the medical center and veteran-service groups will help with the fair.

This year’s Winterhaven also may be one of the last public appearances for VA Secretary James B. Peake. He will help serve lunch to veterans about noon.

So-called Stand Downs have been held nationwide since 1988. The first was organized by a group of Vietnam veterans in San Diego.

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