Free meals, toiletries & clothing items; VA health care, benefits & housing information available

BAY PINES, Fla. - When Lamont Garner talks about defying death, he's not referring to his time in the Air Force. For almost 30 years after, Garner lived on the streets and dealt drugs, cocaine serving as his breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

"I was just lucky to be alive, lucky someone hadn't killed me already," Garner said. "I became my own best customer and from then on it was all downhill."

One day, two years ago, Garner asked a friend for $4.50 to take a bus to the Bay Pines VA Hospital, and he remembers exactly what he said.

"I said, 'I need help and I'm dying. Can you help me please?'"

Saturday April 6, Bay Pines expects to see more than 500 homeless veterans just like Garner during the VA's largest one-day homeless outreach called a "stand down".

Veterans make up 1/3 of homeless adults nationwide. Florida is one of the states with the highest homeless veteran poulation, numbering at about 20,000.

"I hear a lot of veterans say, 'I can't believe I'm here. I'd never have guessed I'd be here. I don't want to be here. I don't want to live off the dole. I don't want public assistance," explained Bay Pines VA Homeless Program Coordinator Rose Stauffer. "It's a snowball effect and it's hard to just treat one thing."

The Stand Down for Homeless Veterans runs from 9 a.m. - 1 p.m. The event is scheduled to take place in the courtyard located near building 37 at the medical center campus located in Bay Pines. Services at available will include access to medical care; free meals, toiletries and clothing items; VA health care, benefits and housing information; employment assistance and more.

"The brave men and women who served our country should never be without a place to call home, living without care," said Suzanne M. Klinker, Director, Bay Pines VAHCS. "Through events like homeless stand downs and other programs, we are able to partner with the community and provide invaluable resources to homeless Veterans or those who are at risk of becoming homeless - to get them back on their feet and to provide them with the care they earned through their service."

Garner plans to attend, but this time to help. He's now 3 semesters into a degree in addiction counseling with a 4.0 average.

"It's time for me to start giving back. save a life," he said. "If one life can be saved, then it was well-worth it all."

To learn more about the upcoming Stand Down for Homeless Veterans event hosted by the Bay Pines VAHCS, please call 727-398-6661 extension 7552.

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