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Column: Stan Levin is a veteran at giving away sleeping bags

Stan Levin, 93, gave Rico Santiago the 5,000th sleeping bag in 11 years from S.D. Veterans for Peace Compassion Campaign.
(Diane Bell/SDUT)

93-year-old and San Diego Veterans for Peace are on a personal Compassion Campaign

When Stan Levin encountered a homeless man in a wheelchair behind a Denny’s last month, he did what he always does. He started a conversation.

As they chatted, he asked the fellow if he was sleeping on the ground and needed a sleeping bag. What he wanted at that moment, though, was a meal.

“Go in and tell the cashier what you want for breakfast and I’ll pick up the tab,” Levin replied.

While the stranger was ordering, Levin walked to his car and came back with a sleeping bag to give to him.

For more than a decade, he has been part of small coterie of U.S. veterans dedicated to making those who are down and out on their luck a little more comfortable living on the streets of San Diego by handing out sleeping bags.

They represent San Diego Veterans for Peace, a chapter of National Veterans for Peace, and this is their personal Compassion Campaign.

On the evening of Oct. 17, Levin, who is 93 and unable to make these humanitarian missions as often as in the past, was given the honor of handing out the 5,000th sleeping bag.

Rico Santiago was barely visible under a dirt-streaked cotton coverlet on a cold concrete sidewalk next to a building near San Diego City College.

Gary Butterfield, wearing a blue Veterans for Peace (VFP) T-shirt approached him quietly and talked to him.

Santiago told him he was a vet and had joined the Army in 1982. Smiling a toothy grin, he appreciatively accepted a pair of socks, a granola bar and some hand sanitizer which, he said, repels the bedbugs.

Then Levin presented him a new sleeping bag rolled up like a giant Tootsie Roll, along with a nylon duffle bag for storage.

“Stan Levin (93) has all but devoted his life to this program for about 10 years now and is a true role model for someone so late in life,” says Gilbert Field, VFP chapter administrator.

They can’t stop the epidemic of homelessness but, like 21st century nurse Nightingales, they can make the nights a little less harsh and, with a few words of conversation, show that someone cares.

The program started in December 2010, when member Jan Ruhman became upset by the number of unsheltered veterans he saw shivering in the cold downtown.

The chapter had only $500 in the treasury, Field says. Nevertheless, they decided to raise $3,000 to buy sleeping bags

“We thought it was impossible. We couldn’t raise all that money,” he says. But they put a fundraising plea on their website (sdvfp.org/donate/). They dispatched emails. They posted flyers at libraries, Starbucks and other stores, and money came in.

“We soon raised $3,000, then $3,000 more, and we established a permanent “Compassion Campaign” to keep buying sleeping bags for distribution,” Field says.

Initially, they purchased sleeping bags for $50 at Big 5 Sporting Goods but were re-directed to the manufacturer, Coleman, where they could buy directly at a significant discount. Now they purchase 4-pound polyester sleeping bags in bulk, paying about $35 each. Coleman ships them for free.

Generally, they go out after dark in the early evening when the street people are bedded down, which allows them to identify those in greatest need.

“We have been doing this now for 12 years and have no agenda or planned recipients each time we go out,” Field says.

They avoid established groups (usually four or more people) and look for singles, couples, mothers with children and those who are likely to be the newest homeless with little or no gear, Field explains. “We usually take 20-to-25 bags each trip.”

Levin has his own approach. He engages a potential recipient in conversation. Often he starts by offering a pair of socks. “I spend about 10 or 15 minutes talking to them,” says the Korean War combat veteran who lives in Serra Mesa with his wife.

Jeffrey Gickow, from Michigan, who used to drive a pedi-cab here, camps out under an illegal lodging sign in East Village.
(Diane Bell/SDUT)

On Oct. 17, they started at Park Boulevard and B Street and drove through the streets of East Village looking for those not lucky enough to have one of a battalion of pup tents that pop up at dusk.

  • They encountered former pedicab driver, Jeffrey Gickow, at 16th St. and Market, who sat on a bathmat under a haphazardly rigged lean-to created with scraps of fabric.
  • Another man told them he had been homeless for four years and was waiting for his retirement to kick in. He had been trying to get off the streets. “It’s hard,” he said softly sitting mid-sidewalk with his head bowed on a raised knee. “I used to work on political campaigns for propositions,” said the former petition signature gatherer. “I don’t do drugs,” he wanted his visitors to know.
  • A gregarious woman on Market Street guarded her wealth of castaways. She was especially proud of her collapsible ironing board, which, she announced, could be used in different positions — as a sit-down lunch table or a stand-up counter. Some street people, like her, aren’t in need of a bedroll and defer to others.
  • The saddest curbside story was told, not in words, but through the uncontrollable sobs of a young man lying with no covers on the hard sidewalk. His head was jammed under a walker that held his meager possessions as if he was trying to hide from the world.

“Life can be cruel,” said Ruhman, after tucking a sleeping bag next to the distraught figure. He accepted it half-heartedly, so preoccupied was he with his grief. His sobs followed us down the street.
While talk continues about creating more homeless shelters, this team of military veterans has boots on the ground. Through their untiring dedication, the T-shirt-clad scouting party has become a familiar sight after dark.. “They know us,” Butterfield says.

In 11 years, Levin says he was only fearful one time. He was chased a couple of blocks by a man who was yelling incoherently.

Nowadays he can’t make the rounds as often as he used to and takes his walker in the car. “I used to be a professional acrobat,” he recalls, referring to his late teens when he and a friend performed an acrobatic act. “Now I need a spotter to get off the couch,” Levin jokes.

“I’ve had more than 1,000 experiences with 1,000 faces, and in each case, I get more out of it than they do,” Levin adds.

Bravo to these men who aren’t giving just lip service to San Diego’s unsheltered residents. While they remain dependent on others to replenish their supply of sleeping bags, they are doing something to help — one bedroll at a time.


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