Veterans Mourn Passing of “the Secret Weapon” in the Battle to End Homelessness
Giant service dog enabled rescue of hundreds of homeless veterans, new model of care
December 20, 2023 A large number of military veterans, family members, and people on the front lines of the veteran homelessness crisis are mourning the passing of a beloved service dog today. But Leo, a 190 pound Alaskan Malamute, wasn’t just any dog. Leo was a star player on the team that rescued over 250 Ventura County veterans from homelessness in the last four years. Leo passed away Tuesday at the age of 12.
Adopted as a pup by Army veteran Rafael Stoneman
, Leo was Stoneman’s companion and sidekick through his own struggles, periods of living in a van, getting back on track with the help of Gold Coast Veterans Foundation
, and finally returning there as a volunteer to help other veterans. Having been a homeless veteran, then trained in psychology and addiction counseling, Stoneman knew he could help veterans in crisis who wanted nothing to do with mainstream social services that were “part of the system”.
The only thing missing was finding a way to break the ice and get a meaningful conversation started with notoriously contact-resistant and anti-social homeless veterans.
That “secret weapon” turned out to be Stoneman’s huge white dog, who looked for all the world like a friendly Polar Bear. Even the toughest, street-worn veteran hearts melted when this gentle giant came over for pat on the head. The dog’s presence instantly broke down the barriers, so Stoneman could start a life-saving conversation about finally getting the veteran some desperately needed help.
This unique team quickly began to get positive results; veterans were rescued from the streets and engaged into critically needed services. Executive Director Bob Harris
saw the potential for a groundbreaking new model of care, and formalized their ad hoc street outreach into the Mobile Veteran Outreach program in late 2019, only weeks before the COVID crisis.
With Leo’s big smile on point, backed up by Stoneman’s unique ‘whatever it takes, whenever and wherever it’s needed’ approach to rescuing veterans in crisis, the new MVO program began an unmatched winning streak that continues to this day. Leo was the key to Stoneman being able to approach, engage, rescue, and start repairing the lives of veterans - many of whom the region’s other social service providers had “written off” as being unable to save.
“I’m reminded of that classic movie ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, where Clarence finally gets his angel wings after showing George Bailey just how many lives he’s touched and just how much good he’s done in his community,” says Harris; “There’s a great big furry white angel up there right now who just got his wings, because he helped save literally hundreds of lives in this community. Leo’s spirit, and the success he helped create, will forever change the way we care for our most vulnerable veterans!”
About Gold Coast Veterans Foundation
– The leading non-profit serving veterans in Ventura County, GCVF provides everything to prevent or eliminate suffering & homelessness for American veterans. GCVF has rescued over 250 veterans and family members from homelessness. All services are provided free of charge. http://www.gcvf.org