The First Battle Against Veteran Homelessness Has Been Won
Three years ago, Connecticut was home to some 300 homeless veterans—and today it has ended chronic homelessness among vets. The Navy lieutenant who led the charge explains how.
On Thursday, Connecticut will officially declare itself the first and only state to eliminate chronic homelessness among veterans.
And this victory is that much sweeter for being based on a basic principle that a Navy lieutenant retained after returning from a tour in Afghanistan and rejoining civilian life three years ago.
“Take care of your guys,” Greg Behrman says.
Behrman also retained a sense of duty, and he discerned a call to service when he learned that the federal government had set a goal of ending chronic homelessness among veterans by the end of 2015. The goal was accompanied by an estimate that there were some 50,000 homeless vets in the country, a number that constituted both a crisis and a disgrace.
“Way too many,” Behrman says.
Behrman reasoned that at the very least we owe those who served their country a roof and a bed. He set about determining what was being done about the 300-some homeless vets in his native state of Connecticut. He discovered that a wide range of dedicated people were out there doing their best.
But they were not doing their best in the best way. Behrman founded The Connecticut Heroes Project and proceeded to address the problem as he would have were he back working with General David Petraeus in Afghanistan.
“You need a plan,” Behrman notes.
And that plan has to be implemented so that it is coherent and coordinated.
“Strategic leadership,” Behrman says.
As he learned all he could about the efforts of those already addressing the problem, he also consciously sought to secure their trust. Newman’s Own Foundation provided funding. Partnership for Strong Communities served as host for a Veterans Workgroup comprising government officials and nonprofit groups. The participants included such social service luminaries as Laurie Harkness of the Connecticut VA’s Errera Community Care Center.
“Laurie is a real innovator, a real doer,” Behrman reports.
Behrman, who is 38, sensed that Harkness and the others were not just willing but eager to work together.
“There was a hunger to have a plan,” Behrman recalls.
Once the right people were in place, the next step would have been the same whether they had been waging war or waging peace.
“Coordination and execution,” Behrman says.
The plan had to remain what Behrman calls “a living document” that could be modified to meet the changing demands of the situation.
“Strategic plan meets reality,” Behrman notes.
And the reality at the outset seemed daunting.
“In the early days, everyone viewed this as an audacious goal,” Behrman remembers.
They proceeded to demonstrate what can be accomplished by a group of people who believe in the mission and are completely engaged and happy to do the work.
“Without worry about credit or turf,” Behrman adds.
And work they did, with discipline and unrelenting, total focus.
“Driving toward our goal,” Behrman says.
Behrman witnessed a wonderful cycle.
“Accomplishments lead to confidence, which leads to energy and desire for more accomplishments,” he says.
They were constantly sharing what they learned, seeking what was most efficient and effective, devising new polices and tactics.
Traditionally, homeless programs begin by providing mental health care and other services prior to securing housing. The new Connecticut group began with housing, coordinating outreach workers to identify every veteran who was living in the streets. They then provided the vets with what was their minimum due.
“Being in a safe and stable environment,” Behrman says.
Six weeks or so ago, the group determined that it had met its goal to end chronic homelessness among vets in Connecticut. The feds have since confirmed the results, and on Thursday there will be an official announcement with various dignitaries.
“I only want us to take an hour to pat ourselves on the back and then get back to work,” Behrman reports.
He and his comrades are thrilled with their success in waging peace on behalf of our onetime warriors. Their dream is to inspire other states to do the same.
“Exciting things are possible,” Behrman says.