ST. CLOUD – Dan Abrego was one of the first residents to move into the Linden Grove Veteran Apartments on the VA campus in St. Cloud six years ago.

The Vietnam-era veteran said he didn't go to the VA for decades after being discharged from the Army in 1972. "A lot of us don't want to come into the system," Abrego said Tuesday at Veterans Plaza, in front of the St. Cloud Municipal Athletic Complex. "We want to feel like we're free."

He found himself homeless — living in a car or couch-surfing at friends' houses. He finally caved and went to the VA, where he found support and steady housing.

"My life has really changed. I went from drugs to drinking to sobriety for six years," he said. "It's a good feeling to find out somebody cares."

Abrego is one of the 2,284 homeless veterans in the state who have been housed since late 2014, when the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs started tracking veteran homelessness with a registry. He joined state and local leaders Tuesday to celebrate 13 additional central Minnesota counties that have effectively ended homelessness for veterans.

"It does not actually mean that there will never be another homeless person or that there isn't right now," said Tim Poland, coordinator of the Central Minnesota Continuum of Care, which includes Benton, Cass, Chisago, Crow Wing, Isanti, Kanabec, Mille Lacs, Morrison, Pine, Sherburne, Stearns, Todd and Wright counties. "What it means is we have systems and processes in place so if somebody does find themselves in that situation, the length of time they are homeless hopefully is very short."

The goal is for partnerships to rapidly respond and make homelessness rare, brief and nonrecurring.

As of Monday, 279 veterans in the state were homeless, 23 in central Minnesota.

"While the majority of Minnesota's more than 300,000 veterans are doing well and have stable housing, one homeless veteran is too many," said Derek Holt, homeless programs coordinator for the state Department of Veterans Affairs.

Three of the state's 10 continuum of care networks — Hennepin, Ramsey and St. Louis counties — have yet to be identified as effectively ending veteran homelessness.

Shortly after taking office, Gov. Tim Walz announced he wanted all 10 networks to end veteran homelessness by the end of 2019. The pandemic and a tight housing market have disrupted the timeline.

Walz, who spent 24 years in the Army National Guard and served on the Committee on Veterans' Affairs in Congress, has been vocal in asking landlords to step up and designate housing units for veterans. He's also built up the homeless veterans registry started by former Gov. Mark Dayton.

The registry not only helps veterans find housing, it can help them find support for sobriety, medical or mental health care, employment and veterans' benefits, Poland said.

St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis spoke of his brother Mathias, who always had good things to say about his experience at the VA. Mathias Kleis died in 2005.

Kleis also spoke of his brother Thomas Kleis, who died by suicide in July 2020. Both brothers were veterans, as is Dave Kleis.

"No different than any single military member who knows you never leave someone behind, a community and a nation and a state can never leave someone behind — especially those individuals who serve," Kleis said. "That commitment is important."

In 2015, the department identified 593 homeless veterans; so far this year, 320 have been identified.

"At least one veteran in Minnesota becomes homeless every day. On average, we have about 45 veterans each month that become homeless. If you take that number into a year, we're talking over 500 veterans that need to find homes," said Larry Herke, commissioner of the state Department of Veterans Affairs. "That number continues to have churn — both inputs and outputs — that we watch on a daily basis."

Three states — Virginia, Delaware and Connecticut — have met criteria statewide, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Walz has said he hopes to become the fourth state to effectively end veteran homelessness.

"And I can tell you: Hope is a powerful word," Walz said Tuesday. "This takes hard work. This takes planning. This takes logistics and this takes a commitment that extends beyond just some words of support but to actions of support."

Jenny Berg • 612-673-7299

Twitter: @bergjenny