Reginald Forest, 56, an Air Force veteran who served in Operation Desert Storm, is sitting in a makeshift waiting room outside a large, colorful RV splashed with VSP logos in a parking lot. He’s waiting patiently for his glasses to be ready, and will only have to wait about an hour. In the meantime, he can go inside the VFW post across the lot and get a flu shot, or be seen by a medical professional. He might stick around for a free lunch, or get a free haircut by the visiting barber later in the day. In previous years, there has been a masseuse inside the building too.
Today is Veterans Day, and that means the Dr. Hunter Foundation and the UC Davis Willow Clinic have set up shop at VFW Post 67 in the North Oak Park neighborhood of Sacramento, and inside, a flurry of medical students and doctors have come to provide care to veterans and homeless patients.
“I was so happy to get glasses today,” Forest says. He says he hears “‘Thank you for your service’ a lot,” especially on Veterans Day, and the sentiment is appreciated. “We hear it, but it’s nice to receive some physical gratitude,” he says. “Something we can use.”
The Dr. Ernest and Arthella Hunter Foundation was started by their son Dr. Darryl Hunter. Ernest Hunter had been a career Army dentist for several decades and his son followed him into the military medical field, becoming a colonel in the Air Force Reserve and a radiation oncologist at Kaiser Permanente in the Sacramento area. “I named this in their honor to carry out work that was near and dear to them,” Hunter says.
The Veterans Day event that provides care to veterans and the local homeless community is now in its seventh year, he says. The VSP’s mobile vision clinic is particularly useful, Hunter says, not only because of the conveniently quick turnaround for glasses and much-needed vision care, but because “it allows us to give them a checkup for other things” too.
Students and professors involved with the Willow Clinic volunteer their day to give medical care to veteran and homeless clients. The objective of the clinic is to specifically target the health of the homeless population of Sacramento while providing a unique opportunity for graduate and undergraduate education. It’s a mission that lines up well with the Dr. Hunter Foundation’s own goals, Hunter says. In the U.S., about 11 percent of the homeless adult population are veterans, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. Of that group, more than half has disabilities. California has the largest veteran population in the nation, at approximately 1.7 million — or 4 percent of the state. Last year, Sacramento Steps Forward reported there was 313 homeless veterans in Sacramento County alone.
“A lot of vets aren’t comfortable with being seen in the VA system,” Hunter says. “A lot, quite frankly, don’t have trust in the VA system. They see in our group a lot of happy, enthusiastic students who want to help them.”
Shuttles from the Salvation Army building on B Street in downtown Sacramento run between the two locations all day. Clients can come in for a quick check up, or in-depth medical care for a specific ailment and are seen first by a student who then runs the information back to their professors in another room where they consult and discuss treatment. The Willow Clinic is typically open every Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. at Sacramento’s Salvation Army, but they join forces with the Dr. Hunter Foundation usually twice a year — on Veterans Day and on Memorial Day to help provide a special clinic.
Part of the appeal for the veteran and homeless clients, surely, is the chance to feel like their needs matter, and the Veterans Day clinic is unique among its kind, Hunter says: “There are a lot of recognition events [on Veterans Day],” he says, “We’re actually the only event that does recognition, but provides services.”