Under the coordination of North Florida’s fiercest advocate for the mentally ill, Dan Hendrickson (now-retired chief of the 2nd Circuit Public Defender’s Mental Health Unit), I was humbled and privileged to work with career military, retired veterans, civilian social workers, and many volunteer-attorneys and law students, as Civil Law Coordinator for the 2013 North Florida Homeless Veterans’ Stand Down.
(I was also scheduled to coordinate the 2014 Stand Down, but a death in my immediate family just prior to the event prevented me from any meaningful contribution; though I’m prepared to be on deck for 2015.)
An estimated 1,000 plus homeless veterans live in the forests of North Florida. For some, this is a choice, but for most it is because they either have nowhere else to go or because they are attempting to escape from what would be a resolvable problem if they had enhanced financial resource or access to mental health, legal or social services. Each year, the North Florida Homeless Veterans’ Stand Down, the Florida Veterans’ Foundation, and social service agencies organize a weekend event where veterans can commiserate with each other, get on-the-spot appointments with VA officials and social service providers, enjoy free meals provided by local businesses, be entertained by area musical groups, and meet with volunteer attorneys about civil and criminal disputes, often long unresolved.
Thanks to State Attorney Willie Meggs and Assistant State Attorney Jack Campbell, and again to the non-stop advocacy of Dan Hendrickson, the Stand Down is also able to offer a unique “remote courthouse” where criminal charges and bench warrants can be resolved literally in an afternoon. Monetary fines, which obviously a homeless person cannot afford, can be converted to community service hours; and for those who express a need for it, mental health services can be ordered.
My role was to coordinate the civil legal services for the event, which mostly involved helping those who owed back-child support or who needed assistance applying for VA benefits or finding transitional housing. Overall, in 2013, more than a hundred outstanding cases were resolved because the veterans and community stakeholders were able to get together with service providers, representatives from law enforcement, and the more than a dozen lawyers and law students who volunteered their time to help out.
To learn more about the North Florida Veterans’ Stand Down, you can visit their website here: http://www.northfloridastanddown.org/