He ran his hands through his short white hair to brush off some of the trimmings from his first professional haircut in no telling how long. "Months," he said. Usually, Ronald Cunningham, a 64-year-old homeless Vietnam veteran, gives himself haircuts using a comb and a broken razor blade.
But Friday was the 16th annual Wichita Homeless Veterans and Community Stand Down, a one-day reprieve from the streets and shelters for those in need; a chance to get free clothing, a free hot lunch, free medical and dental screenings, free legal advice and host of other free services, including a free haircut from the Riverside Hair Station.
Cunningham, who is living in temporary housing at the moment, said he felt good after the haircut.
He came to the event primarily for some rain gear, and left with a sack containing a water-resistant wind-breaker and toiletries.
"This is really appreciated," he said. "I don't have anything hardly that keeps water off me, and this is perfect."
The Stand Down took place from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. in a city of tents that sprawled between Pattie and Lulu streets southeast of downtown Wichita.
It drew 651 homeless people, including 226 veterans, which was the largest turnout in the event's 16-year history, according to Dave Desmond, chairman of Veterans Emergency Transition Services, which coordinated it.
That total doesn't include an estimated 50 to 60 children who accompanied homeless parents, organizers said.
The Stand Down began as an event for veterans only, but in the last five years has served the entire homeless community, Desmond said.
And the lousy economy is swelling that community, said Judy Epperson, coordinator of homeless programs for the Veterans Administration.
"We're getting too many calls at work from people telling us they're losing their homes, they're looking for work. And these are the new homeless," she said.
They filled the tents of the Stand Down all day — tents of reading glasses, tents for prayer, tents for flu shots and HIV testing, tents for military surplus gear.
Hamburgers and hot dogs were served. Two bands played. More than 425 volunteers worked.
There was a tent for men's clothing, a tent for women's clothing, and a tent for children's clothing.
Who is homeless
Children are a growing segment of the region's homeless population, said Epperson, who has put a table with toys on it outside her office in the VA hospital.
"We're getting more Iraq and Afghanistan vets coming back and a lot of them have children," she said.
She's also seeing an increase in single female veterans with children.
"We still believe our numbers are growing here," Epperson said.
The most recent point-in-time homeless count was held on Jan. 26. It found 634 people who met the federal Housing and Urban Development definition of the "homeless" — people living in emergency shelters, transitional housing or on the streets in places not meant for humans. Of those, 68 had served in the military.
But, said Luella Sanders, of the United Way of the Plains, the count's lead organization, "We suspect we may not have made contact with all of the veterans who were homeless that day. It really is a snapshot."
The next count will take place Jan. 25, 2012.
The VA is trying to end homelessness among veterans within five years, Epperson said.
"It's quite a challenge for us," she said.
It has programs in place right now it didn't have three years ago, including a HUD-VA housing program offering vouchers for vets, a veterans justice outreach program for incarcerated vets, and several back-to-work programs.
Epperson thinks the goal is attainable.
"I'm optimistic, if we can put the best effort forward, and that's what we're seeing right now," she said.
One day of relief
Gene Emig, a 79-year-old Army veteran who served in Korea and Vietnam, sat outside the military surplus tent during the Stand Down and said he was grateful to get some underwear and T-shirts.
He rode to the event in a van that shuttled other residents of a rescue mission in Salina.
Emig found himself homeless after a career in the security business.
"I got too old. They wanted the young bucks," he said.
One of the non-veterans at the Stand Down, Lewis Hall, waited for a therapeutic massage from Sue Morningstar, of Morningstar Massage.
Hall said he sleeps "on God's front porch," meaning the steps of a church in downtown Wichita, after suffering setbacks while working in the restaurant, construction and plumbing industries.
The event was a welcome respite from his daily life.
"If you've been homeless any amount of time, it's a chance to see friends you haven't seen for months or years," Hall said. "It's a place to socialize for a little while and forget about all the world."