The 200 or so men and women encamped for the weekend in field tents at the National Guard Armory in Northeast Philadelphia have two things in common:
Years in the military and a desperate need for housing.
From Philadelphia and the surrounding area, homeless veterans gathered yesterday at the armory for a three-day "Stand-Down."
It's a military term used for soldiers suffering from battle fatigue who need rest and recuperation. For many of the vets, this was a needed break from life on the streets or shelters.
Marsha Four of the Philadelphia Veterans Multi-Services and Education Center said it is difficult to determine how many homeless veterans are in the region, including Wilmington and South Jersey, but she estimated that the figure could be as high as 2,500.
Ed Speller, coordinator of the Stand-Down and an Air Force veteran, said military people run a high risk of becoming homeless.
"If you're in a situation where there are bullets flying months at a time, years at a time, your whole psychology changes," Speller said. "Then you're asked to come back and be normal again, and this is where the thread gets torn."
The idea of the Stand-Down is to draw vets inside the circle of social services for help. Now in its 19th year in Philadelphia, it is run by veterans who volunteer, and requires $75,000 in donations and grants to stage.
Tents were set up in the armory's field with stations for medical exams, mental-health counseling, podiatry and dental care, even haircuts. There were counselors with housing advice as well as job training information. Vets got showers and meals, as well as clean clothes and, if needed, eyeglasses.
"They feel at home here and can get back into a military bearing," said Kate O'Hara, a nurse from the Philadelphia VA Hospital.
Most of the vets were middle-aged or older. A handful were women. They had heard about the Stand-Down at soup kitchens, shelters and day centers for vets. Many were brought to the event by bus or van.
Some said they were living in shelters, some on the streets. Some had pitched tents in parks. Many were doubled up in the homes of relatives or living in temporary housing. One man who had been evicted from his apartment was living in his mother's basement.
"You can be homeless and living under a roof," said Gina Hamilton, 44, of Wilmington, who arrived with her husband. The couple do not have a permanent home and, for the moment, are bouncing among the houses of friends and relatives.
"If you can't hold your balance, then the ground starts to shift and you're on the street," Hamilton said.
Hamilton served in the Army for six years. She has worked on and off as a waitress and bartender. Her husband has a seasonal job with the Port of Wilmington.
She said it is hard to find an apartment in Wilmington for $600 a month - about all she can afford. And not having a home is making it hard to hold down a job. "When you don't have a stable place to live and an address, it wears on your job," she said.
Hamilton said she liked returning to the regimen of a military setting, if only for the weekend. "I miss it," she said. "I feel younger."
Bruce Clark, an Army veteran, said he spent six months on the streets of Philadelphia and now rents a room from a friend.
"I got tired of it," said Clark, 48, who usually works as a plumber. "People look at you like you're in a zoo. Give me a decent job so I can pay rent."
His life started spiraling out of control, he said, when a speeding ticket led to the loss of his driver's license and van.
"I need housing on my own," Clark said. "I'm a plumber. I need someone to give me a job. I'm stuck."