From items as basic as boots or as complex as legal matters, military veterans who showed up Saturday at the Santa Maria Fairpark received all types of assistance with a special focus on those who are homeless.
The eighth annual Santa Barbara County Veterans Stand Down connected former military members with access to more than 100 service providers, along with clothing and supplies.
But the event also provided showers, health care and vital supplies for the neediest veterans, especially homeless veterans.
Inside the Park Plaza Building, booths linked veterans to potential jobs, social services, legal aid and more.
That’s where Air Force veteran George Woehlke and his escort for the day, Senior Airman Bre Holmes were browsing the options.
Veterans participating in Stand Down were paired with military members from Vandenberg Air Force Base to help guide them around the Fairpark, carry bags of items picked up for the day and provide camaraderie.
For Holmes, this marked her fourth time participating in Stand Down.
“I love it,” she said while holding Woehlke’s dog, Rosie. “I love helping. I respect the veterans who come before us. It’s just a passion of mine.”
Among those offering help to veterans was the Santa Barbara County Public Defender’s Office, which assisted clearing up legal issues, including infractions, warrants and getting older crimes expunged from their records.
Homeless veterans without a way to easily contact the Public Defender’s Office made up most of those helped at the Veterans Stand Down, according to Deputy Public Defender Mara Martino, community outreach and veterans services coordinator.
“They are more likely to come to this event so that we can help them versus walk into the courthouse, because they’re afraid they’ll get arrested at the courthouse,” she said.
Typically, the Public Defender’s Office can only provide legal help for misdemeanors and felony crimes, but Veterans Stand Down provides an opportunity to assist with the infractions.
“A lot of people get denied public services like housing services or certain types of public benefits if you have a criminal record,” Martino said. “And also it prevents people from getting employment or even financial aid for school, so it’s helpful just to make sure people have their record clean so then they become eligible for other services.”
Nearby, at the Santa Barbara Elks table, full boxes of toiletries were handed out to veterans.
The organization received a grant from the Elks to provide the supplies, including hand sanitizer and more, according to Elk Linda Yeaw.
The local Veterans Stand Down, started locally by Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino along with aide Sandy Agalos, aims to get help to homeless and at-risk veterans.
In addition to targeting at-risk veterans, the event also serves as a one-stop shop for other former military members.
Organizers expected up to 500 veterans to attend the event, which involves an even larger number of volunteers.
“I really want to shout out a thank you to Vandenberg Air Force Base because not only are they here to escort all the veterans around but the behind the scenes would not get done without their help,” Lavagnino said, adding that the base provided 25 to 30 volunteers for two days before Stand Down, making “a huge difference in doing all the logistical work to make that happen.”
New boots, jackets, clothing, towels and more were available along with breakfast and lunch.
Bus transportation was provided from Santa Barbara, as well as from the Lompoc and Santa Ynez valleys.
While final numbers and other data about the 2019 event won’t be available for a while, Lavagnino said he heard minimal complaints Saturday.
To help encourage veterans getting connected to services, organizers set up the free boots and shoes for homeless veterans in the back corner of the Park Plaza Building.
“I hear there’s more people who are heading into the service provider area, which is good,” Lavagnino said. “Our whole goal was to get more traffic in that building because that’s where people get reconnected into the community.”
He said he encountered one Santa Barbara-based homeless veteran who offered only praise Saturday.
“He said he’s been to every one and he goes, ‘This one was the best,’” Lavagnino said.
— Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.