The nation's largest Stand Down event connecting homeless and other military veterans with support services opened Saturday at the Los Angeles Convention Center to an expected 2,500 former service members, about one-fifth of them women.
Jennifer Yost, 33, spent four years in the Air Force as an electronic technician. She left the service in 2004 with unresolved issues and eventually, no place to live.
"There's definitely a correlation. I was raped in the military and that definitely added to my alcoholism and addiction," Yost said.
In the past year, she said she got into rehab and a Long Beach transitional home provided by the U.S. Veterans Initiative. The nonprofit put on the weekend's Stand Down event to help homeless, at-risk, jobless and other vets. The group provides veterans with transitional homes in Riverside, Inglewood and Long Beach.
A vast meeting hall in the convention center was split into two sides — one reserved for women and women-specific services. The other side was for all vets. Some picked up blankets, others got job leads, free phones or access to mental health counseling. There was food, housing aid, showers, even makeovers.
"I'm getting my hair done by Paul Mitchell. I'm going to be taking part in a fashion show this afternoon," said Yost as she sat in the makeshift salon on the women's side of the event.
Yost said she was waiting to qualify for a housing voucher that will help her independently rent an apartment.
Stand Down events have become common across the country as the nation's military winds down after more than a decade of wars. President Barack Obama has set a goal of eliminating homelessness among military veterans by the end of 2015.
The Los Angeles area has the nation's highest concentration of homeless vets, said Steve Peck, president of U.S. Veterans Initiative. About 5,500 to 6,500 veterans are homeless in Los Angeles County, about 2,500 in the city of L.A., he said.
The city's count of the homeless population every other year shows that about one-fifth had served in the Armed Forces, he said.
The event becomes a vets job fair on Monday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the convention center.