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A new way to help homeless veterans

County grant will help local VFW post expand bag program that could save the lives of vets and their children

Ken Kraft says it’s easy to imagine what it is like being a homeless veteran in Clackamas County.

“You go outside at night, around 9:30 or 10 o’clock,” said Kraft, who is commander of the VFW post in Lake Oswego. “It’s cold, probably wet. Imagine your stomach being empty and no prospect of getting food the next day. Imagine you have no money and no job.”

That realization three years ago prompted Kraft to create a unique program designed to meet homeless vets’ immediate needs. Kraft and his fellow veterans now fill giant duffel bags with thermal underwear, socks, gloves, hygiene kits, a tarp, sleeping bags, coats and other items. The bags also contain information that veterans can use to find additional assistance.

It’s a program that works.

In its first year, Kraft paid for the program out of his own pocket and was able to hand out 15 bags. With help the following year, he was able to put 50 bags in the hands of the homeless. This year, thanks to a $15,000 grant from Clackamas County, Kraft expects to give away 100 homeless veterans bags. It’s an ongoing effort that has earned the program a National Community Service Award.

“We’re working hard to save and improve the lives of our homeless veterans in Clackamas County,” Kraft said, “and in some cases their children.”

While it is hard to pinpoint the exact number of homeless veterans, Kraft said 35,000 veterans live in Clackamas County and a good number are homeless. “And that ain’t acceptable,” he said.

The bags program has gone so well that Kraft and the veterans helping him are customizing it a bit this year, offering different bags for men and women. They are also working to make sure the bags are distributed as close as possible to the places where a homeless veteran can get one.

There are no strings attached and no one who requests a bag is turned away, Kraft said. That means the program might occasionally miss its target and a homeless person who is not a veteran could end up with a big green sea bag full of valuable items. A homeless veterans bag is worth $500. But Kraft says he’ll take his chances.

“A gift is a gift,” he said. “Some of them might sell the bag to buy drugs or alcohol, but we hope they use what they have been given.”

Kraft and other local veterans soon will gather at the Masonic Lodge on Second Street, where the Lake Oswego VFW post meets, to stuff more bags with things that can help a veteran and his family. “It will be a fun thing,” Kraft said — but the kind of fun that can make a difference between life and despair.

“This program is necessary,” Kraft said. “It fills a niche and a need for helping homeless veterans.”

For more information on the homeless veterans bag program or to make a contribution, contact Kraft at 971-227-4139 or kraftken@mac.com.

Contact Cliff Newell at 503-636-1281 ext. 105 or cnewell@lakeoswegoreview.com.

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