Veterans and their advocates had more than 23,000 participants in last year’s VA 2K Walk and Roll event, bringing $289,000 in donated goods for homeless veterans throughout the state.
“It’s not just about exercise,” a recent press release said about this year’s event. “The event also focuses on helping homeless veterans. Participants are encouraged to bring donations of items such as pre-packaged food, bottled water or toiletries all of which will be donated to homeless veterans in local areas. Since 2011 the annual VA2K event has generated donated goods valued at more than $2 million — all to help homeless veterans.”
This year, however, the announcement of the annual event angered veterans and their supporters in Curry County.
The Roseburg VA sent the press release out at 12:30 Tuesday — less than 24 hours before the event was slated to take place in Brookings and 29 hours prior to the new VA Director David Whitmer’s arrival for a town hall meeting that night.
Veterans supporters scrambled that afternoon to get information out on social media, to little avail. At 11 a.m. Wednesday, no one was at the VA clinic on Railroad Street to participate.
“The event could have actually been something that our community could have gotten behind and been truly participatory while addressing a true need here in Curry County,” said Connie Hunter, a veterans advocate and board member of the Brookings-Harbor Community Food Bank. “It would be great if this were meant to actually to provide a community-wide, community-inclusive opportunity to support our veterans who are most in need because it is a real deal here in Curry County.”
That lack of communication was one of the primary topics that would be addressed at a VA town hall meeting that night.
Curry County is home to the most veterans per capita of any other county in Oregon. And reports of all kinds indicate veterans who suffer from numerous mental and physical ailments comprise a disportionate number of homeless people throughout the U.S.
Hunter and others fight hard to help those who have difficulty helping themselves.
“We don’t even have a warming station here, let alone emergency shelter of any kind,” she wrote in a letter to the VA. “Planning for transitional housing is a goal we are very hopeful to work toward. And, we are leading the charge for affordable housing for veterans in our area.”
She noted local Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 757 and its associate members have provided more than $40,000 over the past few years for veterans needing housing, and the food bank last winter expanded its offerings to include camping gear during a long cold snap.
Between 18 and 25 people needed those items — sleeping bags, blankets, tents and tarps among them — and half, Hunter estimated, were veterans.
County Veterans Service Office Tony Voudy and the veterans program manager for the Oregon Coast Community Action nonprofit have also asked Hunter to try to raise $5,000 a year from which to draw in emergency shortages.
“We must maximize our resources and opportunities because in our neck of the woods our resources are extremely limited,” she said. “We have federal high poverty hotspot designations in North Curry County, and … at any given time, it is estimated that 10 percent of our veterans are one delayed disability payment away from losing their rental homes.”
The food bank and other nonprofit organizations, too, were struck hard during last summer’s Chetco Bar Fire, which resulted in high demand for assistance from those evacuated from their homes and others suffering from the dense smoke.
“Along with our housing shortage, there is a food shortage in our neck of the woods,” she wrote. “We literally had to build our food system during a natural disaster while breathing smoke. That is a meritorious Herculean effort that was done with volunteers whose average age is 68 years old, who fed 2,500 people a day, unexpectedly, while preparing to evacuate at any time.”
She concluded that she hopes the Walk and Roll event can create a splash in the community next year.
“We could grow this event with community partners and actually do what the news release suggests is the purpose of the event, if we recalibrated and added a little elbow grease to the actual event planning,” Hunter said. “Then the PR fluff could, next year, be based in fact.”