Gov. Tim Walz is declaring that the state has made more progress in the effort to end homelessness among Minnesota’s military veterans.
At an event Tuesday in St. Cloud, Walz announced that in the 13-county central Minnesota region, veteran homelessness was effectively ended.
The governor cited efforts by state and local governments, nonprofits and landlords that help veterans overcome barriers to finding housing. He said Minnesota is on track to become the fourth state in the nation to eliminate veteran homelessness.
“That doesn't mean that, at that very moment, we say, ‘Oh, there's no one out there that's homeless,” Walz said. “It means we built the structure underneath that both prevents and responds quickly.”
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The declaration covers the 13 counties served by the Central Minnesota Continuum of Care, which addresses homelessness in Benton, Cass, Chisago, Crow Wing, Isanti, Kanabec, Mille Lacs, Morrison, Pine, Sherburne, Stearns, Todd and Wright counties.
Similar designations have been previously made for other parts of the state. Most of the regions have now met the goal, but Hennepin, Ramsey and St. Louis counties have not.
Minnesota has a statewide registry of homeless veterans, which officials say helps speed up the process of identifying barriers and finding stable housing, one veteran at a time. As of this week, there were 278 veterans on the registry.
"It's just so we can work faster and quicker, and within a short period of time — usually less than 90 days — be able to place that veteran in safe, secure housing,” said Larry Herke, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs.
Herke said the state partners with local governments, nonprofits and landlords to help secure housing for veterans in the places where they want to live.
On average, about 45 veterans become homeless in Minnesota each month, Herke said. That adds up to more than 500 veterans a year. Herke said finding enough affordable housing for veterans is one of their biggest challenges.
St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis said collaborative efforts to support veterans is critical. Kleis recently lost his brother, a Vietnam veteran, to suicide, and said the issues of veteran suicide and homelessness are connected.
“When somebody serves this nation and our country, we cannot leave them behind. We must support them,” Kleis said.
Veteran homelessness can have many causes, many of which can be outside of their control, said Tim Poland, coordinator of the Central Minnesota Continuum of Care.
Nearly 5,000 households in the three-county St. Cloud area spend at least half their income on housing costs, he said.
“Many people are living paycheck to paycheck,” Poland said. “So if their employer closes or leaves the state, or illness hits the person or a family member, it doesn't take long for that crisis to develop.”
Other barriers for veterans include needing a place that’s accessible for someone with a disability, issues with the credit or rental history, or not meeting income requirements to qualify to rent a place, Poland said.
Dan Abrego, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Korea, spoke about his experience being homeless.
“Being on the streets, and not knowing what's going to happen, sleeping in your car, sleeping in empty houses, or staying with a friend that you know you can't be there but one or two days — it's hard,” he said.
For the past six years or so, Abrego has lived in Linden Grove Apartments next to the VA Health Care System campus in St. Cloud, which provides supportive housing for veterans. Having stable housing has been life-changing, he said.
“It's a good feeling to find out that somebody cares out there,” Abrego said.