A line of homeless war veterans waited along Howard Street on Wednesday afternoon, hoping to get in on an early Christmas present.
Filing into a building on the street in small groups, the men were inside momentarily before coming back out with bright red backpacks and smiles.
The smiles were due to the Swords to Plowshares’ Christmas Giveway for Vets, a 20-year tradition that bought 120 of San Francisco’s homeless vets a backpack filled with goodies to make the winter months a little less harsh.
Willard Cormier, a Vietnam War veteran who served two years in combat, came by to pick up his backpack. Inside were a warm jacket, underwear, hand sanitizer, rain poncho, toothbrush and a day planner to keep track of medications — among other gifts.
“Here, they’ll hold your hand. It’s not like everybody looks at you like you are an outcast,” Cormier said.
Homeless and diagnosed with bi-polar disorder in 1986, Cormier said he rarely finds the support he gets at Swords to Plowshares elsewhere.
“I’ve seen them literally pick guys up off the street and bring them in here,” Cormier said. “[The vets] need help.”
Homeless advocates estimate between 8,000 to 11,000 people live on San Francisco’s streets. Of those, the national average of veterans in any homeless populations is 28 percent to 30 percent, said John Baskerville, director of health and social services for the organization.
Plowshares pioneer Jim Scardino said the idea fit with an obvious need in the community.
“It started off as a party for the kids of vets,” said Scardino, who raised $3,750 to buy the backpacks and fill them with supplies this year. “But everyone is willing to donate toys for kids, and we wanted the vets to have something, too. It just grew from there.”
Originally shopping at thrift stores and in the Mission for low-cost supplies such as gloves and beanies, Scardino teamed up in recent years with volunteer Richard Lyon to order the items on the Internet at a lower cost.
However, of the organization’s 600 clients, only about 120 had the chance to partake in the giveaway, which was designated by lottery and need.
“We have moved from 15 people to 120, but we’d like to serve more because the need is there,” Baskerville said.