AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. Now, the problem of homeless veterans. One place to find them is San Diego County in California. Maybe it's because of the large number of military bases nearby, maybe it's the mild weather. But for a generation, shelters in San Diego have been helping vets, most from the Vietnam War.
Now, younger faces are landing on the street. NPR's Quil Lawrence visited a gathering of homeless veterans.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Every summer for 25 years, the organization Veterans Village of San Diego has held an event called Stand Down. It's a tent city on the grounds of San Diego High School where for three days, homeless vets can sleep on dry cots and eat warm meals. Behind the tents, there's a huge American flag.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God...
LAWRENCE: Even with the noise from San Diego's airport, the tent city offers a calm, safe sanctuary from the streets. A thousand people showed up this year, most of them Vietnam vets, but also some younger faces.
JOSHUA: I had my apartment up until 2011.
LAWRENCE: Joshua, a 28-year-old Navy vet, asked not to give his last name because of the stigma of being homeless.
JOSHUA: And then couldn't keep up with the rent. I mean, I wasn't making enough to keep up with the rent, so I did a little couch surfing and then I ended up on the streets for a while.
LAWRENCE: There are lots of reasons why people who have had a successful career in the military can end up on the street. Too little savings, not enough civilian job skills, no civilian license for the skills they do have, no family to fall back on. In Joshua's case, military life offered structure and support.
JOSHUA: You know, for the past eight years, all I knew was military.
LAWRENCE: What were the things about the civilian world that just were hard to do after military?
JOSHUA: It was a total life change, and I was like, I don't understand, like, I, you know, served, I have all these, you know, skills and - but nobody is willing to hire me.
LAWRENCE: Joshua hit the bottle and wound up sleeping rough. Now he's getting help, living full time at the residential program run by Veterans Village. He's hoping to go to school in the fall. The VA estimates about 67,000 veterans are homeless. A $100 million program was just announced to deal with the problem. Most vets coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan do just fine.
At this summer's Stand Down weekend, there were more young vets volunteering to help than showing up to get help. Mike Judd did two tours in Iraq. He works at Veterans Village. He says he saw this problem coming.
MIKE JUDD: They spend months, years in combat, in military bases, in barracks, what have you, and then they're given like a week to become a civilian.
LAWRENCE: The idea of Stand Down is to offer veterans a way in one weekend to clear out all the obstacles to a fresh start.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Alpha, alpha, bravo and bravo, bravo.
LAWRENCE: The PA system calls everyone up in turns to get free eyeglasses, medical checks, meals, showers, new clothes. There's an open air court in session with a judge and pro bono lawyers to clear up outstanding fines and warrants. For the young guys, that's mostly drunk driving.
PAUL: I had a DUI, and I took care of that.
LAWRENCE: That's a former Marine named Paul. He also wouldn't give his last name.
PAUL: And then I got another one, another DUI, and I had a loaded firearm in the vehicle so the police didn't appreciate that very much. So that's why I'm here right now.
LAWRENCE: A judge told him to enroll in the Veterans Village residential program or go to prison, so Paul is at the Stand Down Weekend to apply for a bunk in the full-time program. Paul blames his drinking on post-traumatic stress from two combat tours in Iraq, but he admits he misses the thing that traumatized him.
PAUL: You can't get quite that rush or feeling on the edge that you do from combat. It sounds kind of twisted in a way, but I enjoyed it very much, save the fact that I lost some friends and a lot of my friends got, you know, maimed. But, you know, if I could, I'd go back right now, so...
LAWRENCE: But Iraq is over. When he gets through rehab at Veterans Village, he's going to have to live in the civilian world, which he still can't relate to.
PAUL: You have a military at war and a nation at the mall. I mean, what is on peoples' priorities especially in my age bracket? You know, all they care about is Facebook, you know, the Kardashians, you know, pop culture, their iPhone.
LAWRENCE: At the end of the Stand Down weekend, Paul did land a space at Veterans Village San Diego. After about a year there, he may still not relate to the crowds at the mall, but he may figure out a way to deal with them. Quil Lawrence, NPR News.
CORNISH: And you can see photos of veterans at the San Diego Stand Down event at npr.org.
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