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Curtis Gilbert, MPR News 90.3 FM, Published January 31 2014

Minnesota's goal is to end homelessness among veterans

In just one year, Minnesota could find a place for every homeless veteran to stay and solve a problem that once seemed intractable.

State and local officials say ending homelessness among veterans is not only the moral thing to do, but a goal easily within reach.

As of a year ago, there were about 350 homeless veterans counted in the state of Minnesota, said Cathy ten Broek, the state director to prevent and end homelessness.

“So it is a very manageable number of veterans,” ten Broek said. “We can see the end of homelessness for veterans in our community.”

With numbers that small, ten Broek said, it’s possible to reach out to every single homeless veteran, determine what’s keeping them from finding stable housing and put roofs over their heads.

“If you have 200,000 people experiencing homeless that are veterans in your community, that’s a little challenging,” she said. “But if you’ve got 349 across the state of Minnesota, or less than 200 in our cities, I think we can really start to do this on a very person-by-person level basis.”

The federal Department of Veterans Affairs has set a goal of ending homelessness among veterans by next year. Already, two cities, Phoenix and Salt Lake City, say they’ve achieved that goal.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said he wants Minneapolis and St. Paul to be the next cities over the finish line.

“We’re going to launch a little bit of a friendly competition between Des Moines and Columbus, Ohio, to say, ‘Who's going to be next in this country to end homelessness for our veterans in their community?’ ” said Coleman, who spoke at a morning news conference that included Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges.

Malcolm Bisson, who served in the Navy in the 1960s, showed up to hear what the politicians had to say. Bisson, 69, hasn't had a permanent home since the winter of 2012, and sleeps in the cab of his Ford Ranger, warmed by an electric space heater.

“It doesn't take much to heat 4 feet by 4 feet by 6 feet,” he said.

Bisson said VA officials denied his request for a two-bedroom apartment. He said he needs the extra space for medical reasons but thinks that the department is ignoring him.

“When you’re trying to deal with people that won't respond, you're not getting anywhere,” he said. “And this program is set up so that they won't respond to anybody.”

Jonelle Glubke, homelessness program director for the Minneapolis VA, couldn’t discuss Bisson’s case, but confirmed most single veterans get one-bedroom units.

Air Force veteran Scott Roberts has had a much better experience with the VA. Since being laid off from his IT job in 2002, he’s drifted in and out homelessness. He also struggled with addiction to methamphetamine and alcohol.

“I fell down, got up, fell down, got up,” Roberts said. “The VA never washed their hands of me. It was up to me, and they give you every resource possible to be able to get your life back, and I’ve been getting my life back in ways I could have never imagined.”

The VA found a home for Roberts in May, and he said he is now clean and sober.

The federal government has increased funding for Section 8 housing vouchers to help veterans like Roberts. As a result, Coleman said, money is no longer an issue when it comes to addressing homelessness – at least for veterans. More than 10,000 Minnesotans are homeless on any given night.

“I am confident we have the resources within this community and the partners that are already at the table to end homelessness for our veterans,” Coleman said. “But I think there's a bigger challenge to end homelessness, period, in the state of Minnesota, which has to be our goal for all families and all members of our community.”