On Veterans Day, 308 Minnesota veterans did not have a home.
The COVID-19 pandemic has eliminated jobs and forced people who were bunked with family or friends into hotels, shelters and encampments. The goal of effectively ending veteran homelessness statewide — an early priority of Gov. Tim Walz's administration — seems more distant.
But Walz and Veterans Affairs officials gathered outside the state's World War II memorial Wednesday and cheered one milestone. The Suburban Metro Area Continuum of Care, which tackles homelessness in Anoka, Carver, Dakota, Scott and Washington counties, has met the federal standard for ending veteran homelessness.
"It's a good day. There's more work to be done," Walz said.
Joining the governor was Army veteran Deborah Spencer of Chaska, who received assistance to find stable housing in the suburbs. She lost her job after breaking her leg and moved in with her sister in Rochester. But living with three others in tight quarters was difficult during the pandemic. She moved out in July and spent a month in a hotel before landing her own place and a job as a supervisor at a manufacturing plant.
"There's hope. Don't give up," Spencer, 52, urged other veterans. She said she was surprised by the housing assistance available when she reached out for help.
The suburban organization's accomplishment means six of the state's 10 "continuum of care" networks are designated as having ended veteran homelessness. Walz had hoped to be at 10 out of 10 by the end of last year.
As of July 2019, officials counted 207 homeless veterans statewide. The end of homelessness for ex-service members has been a moving target for the Walz administration as that number has climbed.
Shortly after taking office, the governor announced that he wanted to meet that goal by the end of 2019, and a few months later said the administration was on track to end veteran homelessness by Veterans Day last year. Veterans Affairs Commissioner Larry Herke later pushed the timeline to early 2020. On Wednesday, Herke said he can't say when they will hit the mark, noting that the tight housing market has become the biggest challenge.
Walz spent 24 years in the Army National Guard and served on the Committee on Veterans' Affairs in Congress. He quickly took on the issue after winning the state's top job, building off of a homeless veterans registry begun by former Gov. Mark Dayton. Walz has tried to bring agencies and sectors together to address the problem and called on landlords for help.
"We need more landlords and property managers to step forward and welcome veterans who have experienced homelessness into their properties," Minnesota Housing Assistant Commissioner James Lehnhoff pleaded Wednesday.
The state is trying to find roughly 450 housing units for people who don't have a home or could lose their place, said Andy Garvais, director of veterans programs for the Veterans Affairs Department. The state has added an employee to track down housing and help overcome barriers to renting, but Garvais said finding apartments has become even more difficult during the eviction moratorium.
Even for groups like Suburban Metro Area Continuum of Care that have already "ended" homelessness, the work is not over. There will continue to be newly homeless veterans there. But the groups have systems to help anyone who loses housing or is at risk of becoming homeless. Those communities have met federal criteria, including identifying everyone without housing, providing shelter immediately to any veteran who wants it and quickly moving that person into a permanent home.
Three states — Virginia, Delaware and Connecticut — have met those criteria statewide, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
"I would like to be the fourth state," Herke said. "That is my goal."