CHELSEA, Maine — Tom Wilmar of Portland would rather have a job, but for some people there comes a time when asking for a little help becomes a necessity.
Wilmar, 60, moved to Maine’s largest city about nine months ago for a job at a big box store that promised him 38 hours a week, but before long his hours were cut to 14 hours a week. Financially, he was ruined.
“When I moved to Portland I had money in the bank,” he said. “Within three weeks it was gone. Within three months my car was gone, too.”
Wilmar, a Vietnam-era veteran of the Navy, now lives in a shelter. He was among 71 homeless veterans from across Maine who converged at the Togus VA Medical Center Saturday for the 14th annual Maine Homeless Veterans Stand Down, an annual event that provides vets with a wide range of services. Though he has qualified for a range of veterans benefits for 40 years, Saturday was the first time Wilmar ever tried to acquire them.
“All I want is a paying job, but no one wants to hire a 60-year-old man,” he said while enjoying a hot turkey dinner provided during Saturday’s event. “Believe me when I tell you that anybody can be one paycheck away from this predicament.”
Though Wilmar’s needs are plenty, at the top of his list was a warm pair of boots. Thanks to a slew of donors and cooperation from numerous veterans’ organizations, Wilmar was given boots and access to a wide range of other services designed to answer virtually every need a homeless veteran could have. Medical benefits, unemployment insurance, haircuts, dental screenings, financial counseling, clergy and hot showers were just a few of the resources available. There were even massage and Reiki therapists.
The Homeless Veterans Stand Down, which began in 1988, is modeled after a concept used during the Vietnam War to provide a retreat for units returning from combat operations. Today there are more than 190 Stand Down events conducted nationwide. In 2009, an estimated 42,000 veterans received services through the program.
According to Jim Doherty, a spokesman for the Maine event who used to oversee it, the stand down urges needy vets to take a break from their troubles, if only for a day. Vans sponsored by Disabled American Veterans transported participants from all over Maine.
Robert Chamberlain, 59, of Newfield, whose only shelter is provided by a couple who are in their late 80s, said he heard about the Stand Down on the radio. Like Wilmar, Chamberlain said he has never sought vet’s benefits before.
“I was just waiting until I needed them,” he said shortly before having his mouth evaluated by a dentist. “This is a super event. I think they’re doing a hell of a job.”
According to several volunteers and veterans’ advocates at the event, convincing veterans to ask for help is a major challenge.
“When they’re in the military, they eat, drink and sleep honor and independence,” said Kevin Woodward of Machiasport, the state VFW commander. “That’s what they learned in boot camp and that’s what they’re still doing for themselves. We try to make them realize that this isn’t a hand-out. It’s a hand-up.”
John Flagler of Sanford, a member of the Marine Corps League, agreed. He said one of his primary goals is reminding veterans that even though they are no longer enlisted, they are still members of a powerful brotherhood.
“The first step in convincing them that you’re a member of our community,” said Flagler. “That’s the first challenge for a lot of people when they leave the military community. It’s a major culture shock.”
Steve Lagasse, 45, who spent four years in the Army in the mid-1980s, has for the most part managed to stay off the streets but is living in a hotel in Bangor for $190 a week. He has managed to pay that sum by working for roofing contractors, but he worries about his livelihood with winter setting in.
Lagasse said he has always been aware that resources are available to him but never realized how easy it would be to acquire them. That’s because he remembers his father, a World War II veteran, fighting for 8 years to convince the Veterans Administration to provide hearing aids.
“The people here are so willing to help you,” he said. “I’m just looking for a little help so I can get back on my feet and move on with my life. It’s hard. You can’t really be a roofer in the winter.”
According to the VA, the number of homeless veterans in the United States has dropped from about 132,000 in 2009 to about 76,600 in June 2011. That’s due in large part to the VA’s Five Year Plan to End Homelessness Among Veterans and the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s HUD-VASH program, which moves chronically homeless veterans into housing.
James Bachelder, chairman of the VFW-Maine’s homeless veterans committee, said there are some 860 veterans in Maine who are characterized as homeless, which means they are either living on the streets or in their cars, suffering in a substandard home without basics like heat and water, couch surfing or staying in shelters. Bachelder said they don’t need to wait until next year’s stand down for help and he urged the nonveteran community to speak up on their behalf.
“Does the veteran next door to you need help?” he said. “Tell someone about it.”
Anyone who is a veteran or knows a veteran in need can call 877-421-8263 or 623-8411.