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SANTA CRUZ—Every Wednesday, at the Santa Cruz County Veterans Memorial building professional cooks and volunteers whip up a fresh lunch for homeless veterans and providers from at least a half dozen agencies help their guests with medical, housing, groceries and other social services they may need.
“It’s a safety net to serve veterans, to provide and connect them with everything they need to be happy and healthy,” says veterans advocate Juan Ramirez, 66, who helped bring the program together in 2012. Ramirez is often on deck, checking in, making sure things are running smoothly. “We’re trying to end veteran homelessness.”
For Ramirez, a U.S. Marine Corps combat veteran, who served two tours in Vietnam and was injured both times, it is a calling. He understands the challenges of post-traumatic stress disorder and says he has learned many tools to work with it. He has found peace in helping other veterans like himself.
“It’s a purpose,” Ramirez says. “It’s almost like I’m driven to it. I believe that that’s how I stay alive. That’s how I stay healthy—staying busy and working.”
Ramirez, works part-time as a peer support specialist with the Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Administration Supported Housing, a program that provides housing vouchers to homeless veterans. He is active in five veteran organizations and a member of the board of trustees for the memorial building.
“I’m pretty veteran-centric right now,” he says. “This is pretty much what I do.”
Ramirez is also a writer. He graduated with honors from UC Santa Cruz in 1986 and writes about the trauma of war and personal struggles in his book, “A Patriot After All: The Story of a Chicano Vietnam Vet,” published in 1999.
These days, much of his time is spent fundraising, trying to get enough goods and funds to support the next free meal for the homeless veterans. The Wednesday Veterans Service Day is like a mini “stand down,” Ramirez says, referring to a term generated out of the Vietnam troop experience that refers to a time when battle-weary soldiers retreat from combat operations and tend to their personal needs, renew their spirit, their health and their friendships.
On Wednesday, 60-80 veterans receive a meal. As long as they’re veterans or family members of veterans, there are no questions. Contact has been made with almost 400 of the estimated 500 homeless veterans in Santa Cruz County, Ramirez says. While there is progress, challenges, such as a dearth of mental health care, hamper efforts to help some people.
According to Robert Shippen, a retired counselor who worked with many veterans, the Wednesday Veterans Service Day is “one of best services available to anybody. He’s done an amazing service.”
Often, Ramirez, who lives with his wife in Watsonville, thinks of how lucky he is.
“I’m a Marine combat veteran and I’ve been through a lot,” he says. “I feel very fortunate to be alive and healthy. It’s very important that I spend my working days doing what I can to help my brothers and sisters. I’m very fortunate to be here. I can’t say that enough.”
This article first appeared in the Santa Cruz Sentinel Live It Up Special Section (Winter 2016).