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Homeless veterans get help with war on poverty

Erick Johnson | 5/29/2014, 9 a.m.
Regionald Spann sifts through clothes Sunday during Operation Stand Down at American Legion Post 29. Photo by Erick Johnson

Raymond Leite, served in the Vietnam War. But his real battle has been going on much longer in Miami’s toughest neighborhoods where the 74-year-old sells fruits to survive. On the city’s gritty streets, occasional gunshots aren’t too far from where he sleeps under blankets. He sometimes finds a nearby shelter to allow him to stay overnight and avoid predators. Unemployed and always on the run, life in South Florida is battle that seems too difficult for Leite to win.

But Leite was one of numerous homeless war veterans whose spirits were lifted during Memorial Day Weekend at ‘Stand Down’, a three-day event where more than 500 volunteers gave food, clothes, career counseling and other services to homeless veterans at The American Legion Post 29 in Miami.

Sponsored by ‘Operation Stand Down’, a national organization, veterans were served, pampered and not forgotten as South Florida celebrated the holiday with the picnics, backyard barbecues and trips to the beach.

But while many have survived the bloody killings on the battlefields, veterans in South Florida and the U.S. are losing the war on poverty as lingering unemployment and despair keep them from assimilating in mainstream, middle-class America. For Black veterans, the problems are even worse as many lack education and skills to gain a foothold in a competitive job market that has less opportunities for minorities.

During Stand Down, volunteers from all races and ethnic background reminded veterans that there is hope and a future for them.

“I’m very proud to see this happen,” said Leite, who was stationed at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba during the war. “This makes me very happy.”

Volunteers helped transform the post to resemble a military base as more than 250 war veterans sifted through clothes and household items under large army tents. Here volunteers armed the former soldiers with items to help them survive and overcome some of toughest neighborhoods in the city. A total of 140 cots were provided for the homeless veterans, who slept on the property throughout the weekend and bathed and showered in well-equipped facilities.

Near the tents, signs that included large numbers of casualties of war were posted on the grounds. Each sign also included number 22, the daily number of veteran suicides, according to the organization.

To help rid those numbers, veterans at ‘Stand Down’ received mental counseling along with free dental, medical and physical examinations, employment and resume counseling, legal help and haircuts.

“I found a couple of pants, but most of these suits do not fit,” said Regionald Spann, 52, who served during peacetime in Germany in 1982. “I don’t want to look like a doughnut hole.

Spann has been homeless since coming to Miami from Tampa in 2009. He has two children who still live in upstate Florida.

Once he loads up on clothing, Spann planned on getting his hair trimmed.

Steven Wesley, 35, a homeless veteran who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the event was uplifting.

“It helps us get back on our feet,” he said. “This is fantastic.”