Charles Boykins was at a rough point in his life in 1999.
A military veteran who had served in the U.S. Army in Europe, Panama and the U.S. from 1979-92, Boykins was now on the cusp of homelessness, despite the fact that he was working at the post office. The Richmond native had left the service in order to be with his family, but they were then separated -- his wife and two of his children had been deported to Panama a few years earlier, while he was caring for two other children in the Bay Area.
"I couldn't afford to take care of both households, so I was on the verge of homelessness, and worried about getting my family back together," he said.
East Bay Stand Down, he said, turned his life around.
The Stand Down, which is taking over the Alameda County Fairgrounds this weekend, has been going on since 1999, that pivotal first experience for Boykins. The event happens every other year, and serves over 300 homeless or at-risk Bay Area veterans, through services including health and dental care, clothing, legal and housing assistance, haircuts and more.
"We provide them with shelter, new clothes, psychological, medical and dental services, and provide them with food," said Jerry Yahiro, founder and director of Stand Down and a Vietnam veteran himself. "And try to treat these veterans knowing they're not the only ones out there. That many of us also suffer from the same issues."
Yahiro and a few companions started Stand Down because they saw many veterans in the area struggling, with issues ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to homelessness.
"We were 25 years after the end of the Vietnam War and it was still affecting many veterans to the extent that -- homelessness was prevalent among veterans, not just Vietnam, but Vietnam vets were the majority at that time," Yahiro said. They wanted to show veterans that supports existed, that community members cared for their well-being.
The event was held for the first three years at Camp Parks in Dublin, though after realizing the space wasn't sufficient for the large-scale event, they moved to the Alameda County Fairgrounds.
For Boykins, the event was especially crucial because of the housing and legal assistance offered; a housing group helped him find a home in San Pablo and the legal aid allowed him to reunite his family.
Now he's a tent leader coordinator for East Bay Stand Down.
"I promised myself that I would always be back," he said.
Though Boykins said his situation was unique in many respects, certain aspects ring true for many others in the veteran community. Many are "children" going into the military, he said, maybe 17 or 18 years old; they get married, start a family and then leave for a tour. When they return, however, a spouse may have moved on, or situations may have changed, as in Boykins' case -- destroying their support system.
"A lot of the veterans I talk to at Stand Down have that similar problem, of coming home and losing everything," he said. "When they're over there, that's the whole thing a veteran focuses on."
Though Yahiro says that it seems less prevalent for Stand Down vets now, the specter of homelessness is ever-present due to the high cost of Bay Area living.
He added that over the years he has seen more female veterans attending, who have experienced different challenges than their male counterparts.
"Still, unfortunately, most of them have been sexually traumatized while in the service," Yahiro said.
And underlying Stand Down, more than just financial and support services, Boykins said, is the community it provides -- being surrounded by others who have undergone the same experiences.
He remembers meeting a man at Stand Down who appeared to be in stable fiscal shape, who did not seem to fit the "at-risk" population the event aims to serve. Boykins asked him why he was there.
The man explained to him going to Stand Down "gives me that time I need to re-group to go back out and deal with this normal life that I'm supposed to be living."
"I had misjudged of his need," Boykins said. "It wasn't monetary, it was mental."
The event starts tomorrow and will continue through Sunday. For more information, visit eastbaystanddown.org.