Korean War vet keeps homeless warm at night

At age 88, Korean War veteran Stan Levin has earned the right to spend all his evenings in the warm comfort of his Serra Mesa home.

But several nights a month for the past six years, Levin has patrolled the streets of downtown San Diego, handing out free sleeping bags, socks and snacks to homeless men and women he finds sleeping on the sidewalks.

Levin, who makes all his street runs with fellow veteran Gilbert Field, is the No. 1 delivery man for San Diego Veterans for Peace’s Compassion Campaign. The program was started seven years ago by member Jan Ruhman, who was troubled by the large number of unsheltered veterans he saw shivering in the cold downtown.

Since 2011, the campaign has distributed more than 3,250 sleeping bags. About 40 percent of downtown’s homeless population are veterans, Field said, but the bags are distributed to any one in clear need.

“It doesn’t matter to us if they’re veterans,” Levin said. “They’re all out there in the cold. They all need help.”

Levin said he feels an intuitive connection with the people he meets on the streets. As a boy growing up in Philadelphia, he endured extreme hardship he’d rather forget. And his combat experiences in Korea left him with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, something he sees in many of the homeless people he meets.

“Every night I go out, I get the same good feeling,” Levin said. “It’s extremely rewarding and I feel like a made man afterward.”

Levin has been an active member of San Diego Veterans for Peace for many years. He often writes for local news websites and newspapers about his anti-war beliefs and his work with the homeless.

In one poetic essay he composed last May, Levin wrote: “They are human beings, having worth, no less than the rest of us / In some ways superior in their caring and sharing and looking out for each other / Like so many species of forest animals / they are being inexorably squeezed out of their habitat into the shadows.”

Levin started his working life in an acrobatic duo who performed in burlesque shows and nightclubs. But when his partner bowed out to attend college, Levin joined the Navy at age 21. That was in 1950, the year the U.S. entered the Korean War, a conflict Levin prefers to call the “Korean debacle.”

He served as a sonarman 2nd class on a small ship stationed six miles off the coast of North Korea. In 1951, he was assigned to Operation Strangle, a mission to disrupt the supply chain of weapons arriving from China. The death and casualty toll on the nightly commando boat raids was so high and their efforts so futile, Levin said he couldn’t bring himself to talk about his combat experiences for nearly 50 years.

After the war, Levin met his wife, Estelle, and they’ve been married nearly 65 years. They had three children — two surviving daughters and a son who was killed years ago in a failed parachute demonstration at the San Diego County Fair.

After leaving the Navy in 1954, Levin worked for Convair where he wired airplanes. Then after college, he spent 17 years as an elementary school teacher, followed by 17 years selling real estate and finally about 25 years as a real estate contractor.

Levin said he discovered San Diego Veterans for Peace several years ago while attending a public event and he found that the nonprofit’s goals lined up with his own.

San Diego Veterans for Peace is a chapter of the national nonnprofit Veterans for Peace, which has 125 chapters in the U.S. and six in other countries. There are about 5,000 members worldwide, including about 50 in San Diego.

Field, the local chapter’s director of communications, said the organization’s mission is to educate the public on the true cost of war. Most of those efforts involve public events, speeches, articles, marches and banners. Its most prominent local campaign is protesting the Miramar Air Show.

The launch of the Compassion Campaign is unique among Veterans for Peace chapters. Field said the local members discussed the need and voted to open a separate fundraising account to buy some sleeping bags for homeless vets.

Initially, they raised $3,000 to buy 50 bags at a sporting goods store. But when they saw they’d barely scratched the surface of the need downtown, the Compassion Campaign became a permanent mission, and Levin and Field became its most active distributors.

Using a PayPal donation site (sdvfp.org/donate/), Compassion Campaign raises money continuously. Every time the account reaches $1,700, they purchase a lot of 50 four-pound extra-large polyester bags and hit the streets.

At least three nights a month, the veterans head out to distribute up to 20 sleeping bags at a time. Levin and Field say they spend about 90 minutes to two hours driving around to find the right beneficiaries for the program.

They’ve developed a vetting process to determine which people are truly in need and which people will sell or trade the sleeping bag for cash or drugs. They prefer approaching those bedded down for the night because their need is clear. Although Levin was once chased for a block by a mentally ill man, most people greet the team with tears and hugs.

“We look for the onesies and twosies, people who are alone, likely newly homeless, with very few possessions and usually sleeping on the street with little more than a blanket or jacket,” Field said.

Over the years, the veterans have expanded the program, adding warm socks to their giveaways as well as hard-boiled eggs for those who are hungry. Many of the people they meet are so sick — mentally, physically or chemically — that they need help pulling on the socks or sleeping bag.

“I enter their lives with a pair of socks and sometimes I put them to bed,” Levin said. “What we do is let them talk. To many people, they don’t exist so we let them know someone cares."

Field said Levin is tireless in his desire to work the streets, often sending him emails once or twice a day to find out when a new shipment of bags has arrived.

“Stan is special because at 88 years old, he’s down in the worst parts of downtown at night when he doesn’t have to be, helping these homeless people,” Field said. “I think he gets more out of it than they do.”

Levin agrees.

“The gratitude that is spilled on us out there is overwhelming,” he said. “I’ll do it until all the people are off the streets or until I’m not around anymore.”

pam.kragen@sduniontribune.com

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