U. S. Army Veteran Fred Ohlweiler was a resident at the Domiciliary at the Lyons Campus of the VA New Jersey Health Care System the first time he met John Kuhn, chief of homeless services.
“I went to his office because I was annoyed he would not allow patients with cars to drive to meetings at night,” Ohlweiler recalled. “When I walked out, I realized it wasn’t up to me to change the system. It was up to me to change myself.”
The encounter, back in 2004, wound up being one of those one-on-one lessons for which Kuhn is known. Homeless veterans with substance abuse and mental health problems find a temporary home in “the Dom,” in nine community residences, and in Hope for Veterans, a 75-bed facility Kuhn helped create on the Lyons campus.
Since 2000, when Kuhn arrived, those veterans also found a mentor, an advocate, a friend. For the past seven years “the chief” has been there for them, always svelte from his daily seven-mile run, always smiling.
Some of these veterans have not had a commanding officer in many a day. But Kuhn — a social worker with a master’s from Columbia University — commands their respect. That’s because his door is always open and he advocates for all of them collectively and individually. Because, frankly, he respects them.
“No one woke up one day saying, ‘I want to be a drug-using homeless person,'” Kuhn said. “Most people want loving relationships, and to make a difference. The challenge here is to give them the mental, material and spiritual resources to have a meaningful life.”
Because the 45-year-old Kuhn has enjoyed such success — his career with the VA started in the Bronx in 1990 — he has been promoted to do what he did for New Jersey on the national stage.
As of mid-May he donned his new title — national CHALENG coordinator for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. CHALENG, a program launched in 1994, stands for Community Homelessness Assessment, Local Education and Networking Groups for Veterans. It is a huge job. There are 200,000 homeless veterans on the streets of America on any given night.
Kuhn will help local VAs across the country find ways to forge partnerships with communities to create programs and housing for homeless vets. Just as he did by partnering VA New Jersey with Community Hope, a nonprofit that provides housing for the mentally ill, to make Hope for Veterans a reality.
Wherever Kuhn goes, he brings ideas borne of experience. CWT positions, for example. Twelve of the 72 positions that were under Kuhn at VA New Jersey are “compensated work therapy” jobs held by veterans employed helping other veterans.
He won’t have to move for his new job so his wife Rita, who works with the Brain Injury Association of New Jersey, and his three children, Ian, Danny and Julia, won’t have to be uprooted. But he will travel a lot. His first stop was in Coatesville, Pa.