At 27, Marcus Perry doesn’t fit the stereotype of a homeless veteran. But in 2015, near the end of his five-year stint in the Marine Corps, he was prescribed painkillers for a muscle injury. That developed into a dependency and ultimately led to a five-year battle with opiates and heroin.
On Thursday morning, Perry — who will soon celebrate his eighth month of sobriety — was one of the first veterans to arrive in the welcome tent at the fourth annual North County Veterans Stand Down (NCVSD) event at Green Oak Ranch in Vista. Over the next three days at the ranch, about 300 homeless veterans will receive a host of free medical, employment, legal, benefits, housing and other services provided by federal, state, county, nonprofit, church and volunteer organizations.
Kelly Luisi, the founder of Homeless Veterans of San Diego and director of military outreach for NCVSD, said most people assume the bulk of America’s homeless veterans are men from the Vietnam War era. But increasingly, it is young men like Perry who are turning up on the streets due to post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries and opioid addiction.
“We’ve seen veterans here as young as 22 years old,” Luisi said. “Many have college degrees and did great things in the military. But for some of them they’re just one wrong turn or one rent increase away from ending up here. Right now it’s the worst we’ve ever seen. Homelessness perpetuates addiction. When you’re living in survival mode you’re looking for that crutch to kill the pain and make it warmer at night.”
This year’s NCVSD registration is up by a third from last year’s 200 attendees. About 10 percent of the veterans served are women, and this year there are some families expected with a combined 10 to 12 children. Many also arrive for their three-night stay with their pets. Luisi said the oldest guest ever served at an NCVSD event was a 94-year-old legally blind Korean War veteran who was seeking affordable housing because he could no longer live alone.
Matt Foster, NCVSD president and chairman, spent 24 years in the Marine Corps as a helicopter and engine mechanic. These days he works as a civilian aerospace and aircraft mechanic, but said his “soul job” is running the Stand Down event.
“People come here for a weekend and can accomplish more in three days than in 15 years of trying,” said Foster, who is also post commander for the Escondido VFW Post 1513. “Getting them here is important because veterans have a lot of pride. They won’t ask for help until the last minute.”
More than 300 volunteers will be on hand this weekend providing services. There are counseling services for VA benefits, information on college classes, drug and alcohol counseling, art therapy sessions, housing and employment services and onsite medical and dental clinics.
Jim McVeigh, a 56-year-old Army veteran and recovering alcoholic, said Thursday that he was looking forward to visiting the free optometry clinic run by Healing California, which will provide 200 free pairs of prescription eyeglasses this weekend.
One of the most popular features of NCVSD is Homeless Court, a Friday morning legal session run by County Public Defender Terri Peters. Many homeless people end up with piles of misdemeanor citations for loitering or trespassing because they can’t afford to pay them or don’t have transportation to court.
Army veteran Antonette Chapparo, 48, said she is looking forward to clearing several parking tickets at Homeless Court. She and her wife, Theresa Stevenson, 51, have been living in their car with their Chihuahua mix, Max, for the past 18 months.
Due to a mix of roommate, health and unemployment issues, they lost their apartment in 2018 and Chapparo said they’ve “had doors slammed in our face ever since.” Besides obtaining legal services and job assistance, Chapparo and Stevenson said they’re looking forward to sleeping in a real bed for a few nights and excited that Max will get a toenail trim at the pet parlor.
Marine Corps veteran Irvin Musgrove, 56, was trying on shoes Thursday morning outside the welcome tent, which is the first stop guests make after registration on Thursday. Tent manager Jan Kane said each guest receives new underwear and socks and the chance to pick whatever they like from thousands of items of donated new and used clothing, shoes, hats, purses, games, children’s clothing and toys, and more. On one table, there was a large pile of newly knitted stocking caps made by a local crafting group. Kane said the most popular items are the fresh underclothes as well as sturdy boots and blue jeans.
This is Musgrove’s third year at the NCVSD event. He came on Thursday for services and shoes, but wasn’t planning to stay overnight. He recently transitioned into permanent housing after a period of homelessness in Escondido. He said he’s grateful that such programs exist for veterans.
“This is a huge problem all over this nation right now,” he said.
NCVSD was started in 2015 by Tom Cowan of Escondido, who wanted to create a North County version of Veterans Village of San Diego’s annual Stand Down, which draws about 800 veterans to San Diego High School each June. For NCVSD, Green Oak Ranch is housing 255 veterans this weekend. The rest are being shuttled in daily from shelters around the county, including Veterans Village of San Diego and Catholic Charities’ La Posada.
For information on the event, visit ncstanddown.org.
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