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Again this year, mayors aim to end vets' homelessness

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Nancy Homans
Nancy Homans
Toni Randolph | MPR News

Editor's note: In this next installment of MPR News' Young Reporters Series, Josh Marcus examines an effort to help homeless veterans in the Twin Cities. 

The mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul fell short of their goal to end veterans' homelessness in the Twin Cities last year. But officials think they're on track to do it this year. 

When Mayors Betsy Hodges and Chris Coleman announced the goal in January 2014, federal data showed 204 homeless veterans in the metro area. Fifty-nine-year-old Jeff Pert joined that list last December. For 10 years he lived in a shed in Minneapolis. When the shed's owner died, Pert, a Coast Guard veteran, moved to a homeless shelter. 

Pert never considered himself homeless, but federal definitions said he was, for the last 10 years. His social worker at the Department of Veterans Affairs connected him to a subsidized apartment in Minneapolis. It's in the Emanuel housing development in Minneapolis' Mill District. 

"After living for seven weeks in basically a church basement with 50 other guys, all I was hoping for was a place with a door that I could shut and have some privacy," Pert said. "So Emanuel was that and a great deal more. It far exceeded my expectations." 

The Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs says 107 homeless vets have found housing since last December. But it has also identified 198 who are still homeless in Hennepin and Ramsey counties. Overall, that's just six fewer than when the mayors made their pledge more than a year ago.

But in a way, officials have been victims of their own efforts to put a spotlight on the problem. The Minnesota VA created a digital registry that tracks every homeless veteran identified in each region of the state. That's how Pert got his apartment. Minnesota VA officials say the registry provides a clearer image of veterans' homelessness than they've ever had.

What that image reveals is that the problem is bigger than people thought. Roughly 50 homeless veterans join the registry each month.

"We have certainly good contacts in our shelters, in our affordable housing programs," said Nancy Homans, policy director for St. Paul. "We have outreach advocates who talk to folks who are on the street. So I think we probably thought that there would be a period of identifying homeless veterans that would go very quickly.

"We still are identifying some every month."

Eric Grumdahl, special adviser on ending veterans' homelessness for the state and the Minnesota VA, said government agencies, social service providers and outreach workers meet twice a month. They go down the list, veteran by veteran, creating a housing program for each one.

"We know every veteran by name," Grumdahl said. "These are not statistics any more. They're not abstract numbers. ... We really are working with each individual veteran. We understand their story. We understand what they're aspiring and looking to do and also that we've got the right array of supports available to help them achieve those goals."

But barriers to housing homeless vets remain. For instance, there are still stigmas attached to homeless people that make some landlords hesitant to rent to them. 

Despite the challenges, officials say they are confident their new approach will make veterans' homelessness brief, especially if more people have experiences like Jeff Pert. The Minnesota VA says the metro area will soon be housing homeless vets faster than new ones are found. That means the Twin Cities might just reach the mayors' new goal: ending veterans homelessness by the end of this year.