"It Takes A Whole Bunch of People To Make
Operation Stand Down Nashville
BY JIM BELSHAW
They picked up more than three hundred
homeless veterans on the streets of Nashville, and they felt
pretty good about themselves when the three days ended. They had
reason to. They'd done good work. On Friday, at pre-arranged
pick-up points, vans spread out across the city, loaded up
veterans, and took them back to the Nashville Stand Downthree
days when the homeless veterans could take a break from what had
become the routine of their lives on the streets. Haircuts,
shaves, dental work, medical assistance, a place to sleep--the
Stand Down had grown beyond everyone's expectations.
On Sunday, it ended. "We'd pat ourselves on the back and on Sunday
afternoon, guess what happens," Retired Lt. Col. Bill Burleigh
said. "We'd load them up in the vans and take them right back to
where we picked them up on Friday. It was a sinking feeling on
Sunday afternoon. We wound up asking ourselves: ' How much good
did we really do?' "
The answer came later, after Burleigh began volunteering in 1995.
The Stand Down concept began in San Diego in 1987. The idea was to
bring community leaders togetherlocal, state, and federalto
provide a respite for homeless veterans, an outreach effort that
would provide veterans with information and services to help
rebuild shattered lives.
Nashville held its first Stand Down in 1993, a three-day event
where veterans living on the streets or in shelters received
physicals, legal reviews, IRS and Social Security assistance, help
from VA regional offices with claims paperwork, and other
When Burleigh arrived two years later, still a lieutenant colonel
in the Tennessee National Guard, he began as a volunteer. "I
volunteered to take it because I really enjoyed working with the
people," he said. "I did that for two years and then I retired. I
was then asked to come back about a year later as a volunteer on
the board. Then we started talking about going full time."
He's been the Stand Down director for four years now.
"It takes a whole bunch of people to make this work," Burleigh
said. "There's been a lot of folks involved in this. Half the
original committee is still on the event committee. I never
dreamed it would become what it's become. When I retired, I had no
plans of getting this involved."
After that Sunday afternoon, when their hearts sank at the thought
of transporting the homeless veterans back to the streets from
which they had come, the Nashville group decided to do more.
"Out of that was born our full-time agencyOperation Stand Down
Nashville," Burleigh said. "That was four and a half years ago. We
worked closely with the city, and our board of directors got a
place for a service center and four houses. We started offering
services or at least making a referral for them. We've grown to
the point where we're a United Way agency. We have grants from the
VA, grants from HUD, and private donations. We've been blessed
with a tremendous amount of support. Because we've been doing the
event for so long, we have tremendous inroads to the city and
state service organizations."
Burleigh said Operation Stand Down Nashville finds on average 240
jobs per year for homeless veterans. They start tracking retention
at six months and so far average 70 percent. He said finding jobs
for veterans presents a peculiar problem.
"This may sound like a bold statement, but if you have served your
country in the military, you have put yourself and your family at
economic risk," Burleigh said.
By way of evidence, he tells a personal story. Retired from the
National Guard, Burleigh went looking for a job. He had a college
degree and command experience. His last job for the state of
Tennessee saw him supervising 44 employees and working with a
Burleigh sought out help from two executive headhunters. They told
him to come back after he had experience in a real job.
"They told me that it was only after I had a real job with some
real experience that they could help me," Burleigh said. "Veterans
have a higher unemployment rate than non-veterans. You're twice as
likely to have a period of homelessness in your life than a
non-veteran. What we have to do is get it across to employers that
when they hire a veteran, they're dealing with someone who knows
organization and structure. He has discipline and so many other
intangibles you don't get with the non-veteran. We're finding
people jobs and convincing employers it's a good idea to hire
Burleigh said that since the first Stand Down in San Diego in
1987, about a thousand such events have been held around the
"We still do our annual event," he said. "More than a hundred
agencies contribute services for it. We now have 13 full-time
employees and 12 or 13 part-time. Our current governor of
Tennessee was mayor of Nashville when we began. He was
instrumental in helping and continues to support us."
Burleigh said the organization has about a 40 percent success rate
in rehabilitating substance abusers, mostly alcoholics. Granting
that there is a "certain amount of revolving door" when working
with substance abusers, he finds gratification in seeing four out
of ten reclaim their lives.
"It's nice when someone makes that commitment to treatment," he
said. "Four or five months later, they're standing taller,
thinking clearly, and they're ready to go out and try to live as
responsible human beings. We try to take the whole-person approach
for those who are serious about their lives. We talk to them about
where they're at in their lives, the decisions and choices they've
made, and we offer them housing, transportation, clothes,
food--whatever it takes to help them get back to responsible