Advancing National Service

When It Comes to Helping Homeless Vets, Could Thinking Small Be The Answer?

November 11, 2014
When It Comes to Helping Homeless Vets, Could Thinking Small Be The Answer?
Joseph Gotesman led the Bronx Veterans' first official excursion to Hunts Point. DM Event Photography
VetConnect is the little charitable organization that could.

You’d think Joseph Gotesman would have his hands full with studying. After all, he’s a 22-year-old second-year medical student at Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx.

But Gotesman finds the time to lead the small organization VetConnect that seeks out homeless veterans in the Bronx and keeps in touch with them until they find stable housing.

Since January, Gotesman and a handful of volunteers have been walking the streets, looking for homeless people holding cardboard signs saying they’re vets or just asking the people if they’ve served. When they find a homeless soldier, VetConnect works to verify his or her status and begins the process of applying for benefits and finding assistance programs.

So far, VetConnect has helped five veterans attain stable housing and assisted several others find employment.

Jacow W. Sotak of the New York Times asked Chris Miller of the New York City Department of Homeless Services whether such a small-scale effort helps given the magnitude of the city’s homelessness problem. It does, says Miller. “Many of our partners started out as small, neighborhood-focused organizations. We value every effort, however small, to reach out to a homeless man or woman and connect them to services. It makes a difference.”

Gotesman tells Sotak that he believes the strength of VetConnect is its focused, local nature. “You can’t get more local than community members reaching out to their own. And as we grow, it will be community members reaching out to their own as well. You won’t see me at a VetConnect excursion in an L.A. or a Boston community excursion.”

Still, Gotesman recognizes the VetConnect model could work well elsewhere, so he’s helping people in other states organize their own teams. “Helping a veteran is not a quick, simple feat,” he tells Sotak in an email. “It takes time and relationship and trust building.”

Having a local team of dedicated volunteers who can win the trust of homeless vets and keep checking on them until their situation improves is essential. And clearly, so is having some high-achieving millennials willing to pitch in.

MORE: This Veteran Literally Searches Through Shrubbery for Homeless Soldiers Needing Assistance