The line of dilapidated, empty horse barns didn’t look impressive Thursday morning, but what they stood for and would soon become was something else altogether.

Under a $17.2 million project years in the making, the buildings at Fort Snelling will be converted to CommonBond Veterans Housing, 58 apartments for homeless veterans and their families, a symbol of collaboration between organizations and step toward the state’s mission toward ending homelessness. Of the estimated 10,000 Minnesota homeless on any given night, more than 350 are veterans.

But to 67-year-old Vietnam veteran Jerry Readmond, the project is also a symbol of dignity.

 “We can build all the buildings we want for our veterans but hope that when you leave here you think of just one word: Affordable.” Readmond told the assembled crowd, which included Minnesota Sen. Al Franken. Making such housing affordable for veterans helps them retain their pride, Readmond said.

“It takes the honor and strength and courage of a warrior to ask for help,” Readmond said. “That’s why we need to get them in the door.”

The project, estimated for completion next year, will transform the five historic buildings into studio, one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments on the Fort Snelling Upper Post. The complex will include clinical health care services, counseling and monitoring, academic support and job training. A public-private partnership was funded through public and private groups. Minnetonka-based UnitedHealth Group provided $9.3 million in partnership with the Minnesota Equity Fund, while Minnesota Housing allocated $5.5 million in bonds. The project was also funded in part through the bonding bill passed during the 2014 legislative session, which allocated $100 million for housing.

Franken lauded the project’s success in light of troubling news that caused him to join the chorus of lawmakers urging Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign.

“One of the reasons I ran is to make sure that veterans got what they need. We’ve had some rough stuff happen in the interim report that came out yesterday about veterans’ health,” he said. “I believe that Minnesota, when the audit is finished, will look a lot different from that interim report.”

Photo: U.S. Sen. Al Franken addresses the crowd at groundbreaking for Veterans' Housing at Fort Snelling