If you had to live in a car for three days and go without eating for that long, could you do it?
Tom Steinhagen of Mesa, a disabled Vietnam War veteran who did three tours in Vietnam, began trying it for the first time at 9 a.m. Thursday.
In what he is billing as "80 hours of homelessness," Steinhagen began living in a "beater" - a gray 1985 Honda Prelude with a lot of rust, some huge dents, and 200,749 miles on it - in the front parking lot of Berge Ford in Mesa.
It's not that Steinhagen is actually homeless; he is trying to help bring an awareness to the plight of homeless veterans, which are noticeably becoming a younger generation who have fallen victim to a bad economy after returning home from serving in Iraq or Afghanistan with no job, and - in many cases - no home.
Until 6 p.m. Sunday, Steinhagen, with the help of a handful of other veterans, will be accepting cash donations and slightly-used blue jeans he hopes will fill the car's trunk on behalf of the nonprofit organization Stand Up and Stand Proud. Steinhagen and his wife Valerie started the organization in 2009. They will pass on 100 percent of the proceeds to homeless veterans, the Madison Street Veterans Association and Arizona Stand Down, a nonprofit organization in Phoenix which also assists homeless veterans.
Donning a Harley-Davidson stocking cap and dressed in a gray sweatshirt, navy blue sweatpants, an overcoat and light brown boots, Steinhagen will live in the Prelude inside a sleeping bag and blanket most of the time. When the need arises, he'll get out and stretch and walk down the street to a convenience store on Mesa Drive to use the restroom, like a homeless person would do, Steinhagen said.
"Understand that homeless people don't have a home to go to," said Steinhagen, 61, who served as a Petty Officer First Class in the U.S. Navy on the destroyers USS Preble and USS Gray from 1969 to 1971.
"I'm going home at 6 p.m. Sunday," Steinhagen said. "I'm lucky. It's a small price to pay to make the community aware and raise funds for the veterans. Keep in mind, they often don't have a car to sleep in or a restroom to use."
For anyone who wants to stop by and help, Berge Ford is at 460 E. Auto Center Drive near the U.S. 60 and Mesa Drive. The dealership, which often touted itself as having the largest American flag, donated the Prelude (it still runs) to Stand Up and Stand Proud so Steinhagen can take it to other places throughout the Valley for future fundraisers. People who donate can make a 60-second video and sign the car. Berge Ford also will donate $5 to Stand Up and Stand Proud from each Ford anyone test drives until 6 p.m. Sunday.
On any given night, there are an estimated 300,000 homeless veterans living on the street throughout the United States and up to 3,500 homeless veterans on the streets in the Valley alone, according to statistics taken by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Veterans Administration.
"It's mostly because of the economy and the large number of veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan," Steinhagen said. "It's not just older veterans you're seeing live on the streets; it's younger veterans and mothers with children. The VA offers a lot of programs, but they can't do it all. They need help. As a veteran, it's our duty to help other veterans."
In the first hour and a half alone of his 80 hours of homelessness, Steinhagen had received about 300 pairs of jeans and some cash donations for the cause.
Doug McCoy of New Castle, Wyo. - also a disabled Vietnam War veteran who served as a combat medic in the Marines - and his wife, Marie, and spend their winters in Apache Junction. They stopped by to donate about 200 pairs of jeans Thursday morning.
"I've been taken care of," McCoy, 77, said. "I want to help take care of the vets who haven't been taken care of yet."
Steinhagen was wounded in action in 1971 when he broke his back while serving on a ship in south Vietnam.
He doesn't talk about his injury. He talks about his cause and mission instead.
His idea for 80 hours of homelessness arose when he and his wife were returning home from the Blackhills Motorcycle Rally in Sturgis, South Dakota last August.
Steinhagen said they stopped at a Wal mart in Aurora, Colo. and he watched four homeless people in the parking lot for about 45 minutes loading up their cars before driving away.
"My wife mentioned it, and I thought I would do something to bring more of an awareness to the plight of homeless veterans," Steinhagen said. "I thought it was a good idea at the time."
A steady stream of people stopping by to donate to Stand Up and Stand Proud obviously thought so, too.
"Come on down," Steinhagen said. "We'll be here 24 hours a day until Sunday. If I'm sleeping, wake me up and say hello."
For more information, visit www.standupandstandproud.org.
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