Call To Arms

Chicagoans may not know it, but a full one-third of the city's homeless population consists of military veterans, the majority having served in the Vietnam war.

Just as that war went unfinished, many vets struggle with the unfinished business of re-assimilation, an issue Chicago-area Vet Centers are seeking to address with semi-annual "Standdowns," weekend events that provide homeless vets with medical services, housing information, legal assistance, employment leads and more. "The events essentially provide vets with a respite from the rigors of life on the street," says Jean Douglas, a VA director of outpatient programs for combat veterans. "We also provide them with beds for the night in a local armory."

Because services are provided in temporary structures, the standdowns — so named for a term denoting a relaxation of military action — rely on temporary electrical power to ensure volunteers have access to computers and other valuable sources of information.

They get it from IBEW Local Chapter 134 — which not only donates the required equipment, but assembles and disassembles it before and after the events, which occur in Chicago's Humboldt Park community.

"Obtaining generators, lighting and the like was a costly, all-consuming task during the event's early years," Douglas recalls. "Then in 1996 — about three years after we launched — I received a call from a representative of IBEW 134 inquiring about the program. As I began to describe what we needed, he said, 'We'll take care of it,' and as I continued, he said, 'We'll take care of that too.' On the day before our next event, he and a crew showed up with all the equipment and made it work. I was dumbfounded."

IBEW has been assisting with the project ever since. Donated services and equipment save the VA $20,000 per event, according to Douglas. "The standdowns wouldn't happen if weren't for those savings,” she says.

One year, she relates, a storm swept through the site the night before the event, after all the electrical equipment had been installed. "IBEW electricians were on site the next morning, reassembling it from scratch," Douglas says. "They never complained, never uttered a word."