In AMVETS Post 99 volunteers began to bring out extra chairs, rushing to unfold them for the unexpected number of people who came for the 11th annual Stand Down event held Sept. 10.
Watching as each extra seat was filled was Deborah Des Vignes, Vice President of Marketing of Hoosier Veterans Assistance Foundation (HVAF). Des Vignes leaned over to say that this was probably double the size of the crowd compared to last year's numbers.
Stand Down originated in San Diego, Calif., as a place for homeless veterans to come and receive help as they cope with postwar life.
According to Dr. Charles Haenlein, the president and CEO of HVAF of Indiana, the title of the event actually derives from a military concept. While troops were overseas, quite frequently, they would go extended periods of time without bathing and rest. To "stand down" denoted a time when the troops were able to go to a safe place to bathe, rest, eat and send letters safely while another organization acted as an enclosure to protect the troops.
Des Vignes said that there are more than 350 homeless veterans in Marion County each night, which doesn't include the approximately 200 who stay in shelters. Haenlein said that the number has increased five percent since last year.
"The number of homeless veterans in Indianapolis is not going away and we're doing our best to bring them in and offer them services," Des Vignes said. "But it's important to raise awareness and let people know that there are people sleeping out on the street still each night."
Post 99 was lined with tables, each acting as a station to offer free goods, advice and help to some of the homeless and near-homeless veterans of the Indianapolis area. While men and women made their way to each station inside, others were having their haircut for free outside as well as speaking with professionals for employment advice.
Whitney Hamilton, a 59-year-old Vietnam veteran believes that seeking help rather than tackling addiction, financial trouble and postwar life alone will help to decrease the number of homeless veterans.
"Everybody pretty much knows if they got a problem," Hamilton said.
Hamilton sees value in the idea of knowing that veterans don't have deal with recovery by themselves. He says that "breaking pride" and getting help in their recovery will put them back on track.
"But you've got to be willing," Hamilton said. "You've got to be honest. You've got to be ready to do it and do some work."
Hamilton is no stranger to the recovery process. Serving in Korea as a 17-year-old, Hamilton was faced with new experiences, including drug experimentation.
On the surface, the Vietnam veteran seemed to have balanced footing in his postwar life. He worked with General Motors, eventually starting his own mechanic business, as well.
However in his personal life, Hamilton was struggling with an addiction to the drugs he'd experimented with at only 17, eventually losing everything and having to sleep in the back of his truck at night.
"I was addicted for a long time," Hamilton said. "I know a lot of these guys, I see some of them still going through the process and I believe that to see somebody that's making it, it'll give them some hope that there is a way out."
According to Hamilton, even if veterans haven't established with themselves that they've got a problem, they can come to events like Stand Down for support and free necessities, like haircuts, hygiene products and clothes.
"There was one guy who came out here and got a card and kept that card until he hit his bottom and pulled that card out and got him some help," Hamilton said.
According to Hamilton, he goes to his meetings and has a sponsor, in addition to sponsoring others — something he never thought he would be able to do.
"That keeps me clean and sober, you know, by helping somebody else and just giving back," Hamilton said.
Being clean for 14 months has inspired Hamilton and given him the desire to help people in similar situations he found himself.
"That's just my desire," Hamilton said. "I just want to help them, but I can't save the world. I wish I could."
While Hamilton has had a positive experience in his recovery, he sees a need for more places that are able to help the homeless community — not just veterans — suffering from mental illnesses.
"There's a lot of mental health that needs to be addressed," Hamilton said.
According to Hamilton, when Central State — a psychiatric treatment facility — closed, it quickly became clear to him that there was no longer a place for those struggling with mental illnesses to go for help.
"We can ride down the street and see people talking to themselves — you know you have," Hamilton said. "There's no place for them to go."
The city's need for a treatment facility hasn't gone unnoticed. According to the Department of Public Safety, the city will open the Reuben Engagement Center no later than March of 2016.
"Since 2007 there has been a recognized, data driven need in Indianapolis to serve homeless persons with mental health/chronic substance abuse issues who come into frequent contact with law enforcement and are are high users of the public health systems," said in a program overview.
The Reuben Engagement Center will be located on Market Street and will house 30 beds and will be open 24 hours, seven days a week.
"Many of the people we see are dealing with co-occurring issues/diagnoses mental illness and substance abuse," the program overview said. "The Center will provide a safe location for homeless men and women over the age of 18 that are unable to gain access to emergency shelter options due to active substance abuse."
Des Vignes believes the unique challenges and circumstances — in addition to PTSD and mental disorders — are some of the reasons why veterans may find themselves homeless after their service.
"We see many veterans who are in recovery... They're still sifting through, they're not committed to getting the help they need," Des Vignes said.
"If you're a homeless veteran then you need assistance," Haenlein said. "You need to get to HVAF."
As for Hamilton, he participated in a 12-step program and has been clean for over 14 months. He has retired from GM, living in a home of his own, and has his own car.
"Everything I've lost is coming back," Hamilton said. "The main thing I've got today is peace of mind. I don't have to worry about running around to find my next drug or to drown my troubles away with alcohol."
Hamilton also added that he has been able to reconnect with his son and spend more time with his grandchildren due to his sobriety.
"As I keep going through this process and I see these blessings keep coming, it makes me just, this is where I want to be," Hamilton said. "I'm loving my recovery."
To learn more about the HVAF mission and volunteer opportunities, or to make a financial contribution, call or visit the website.