Gov. Tim Walz had an urgent request for a group of landlords gathered Wednesday at the Uptown VFW in Minneapolis.
The state has counted 207 homeless veterans remaining in Minnesota. They want to get each of them under their own roof before winter. Would the landlords help?
Slowly, hands raised. Developer Joe Weis committed two units in Rochester and said if a federal veteran housing voucher doesn't cover their rent, he'll make up the rest. Catholic Charities plans to add 250 units and give preference to veterans. Landlord Juanita Pekay said she will house her first homeless veteran starting Thursday.
State leaders walked away buoyed, saying landlords are the missing link in their goal to make Minnesota the fourth state in the nation to end veteran homelessness in a tight rental market.
The federal definition of "ending" homelessness doesn't mean every veteran thereafter will have a home. But meeting the challenge requires the state to hit certain marks: identify all homeless veterans; provide shelter immediately to anyone who doesn't have it and wants it; and help them move into permanent homes. There also needs to be a system to handle veterans who lose their housing or are at risk of homelessness.
To reach that point, Minnesota would need to find 450 units to house people who are now without a place or could become homeless in the months ahead, said state Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Larry Herke.
There are 20 to 25 veterans each month who are newly homeless or weren't previously identified by the state despite living without housing for a while, Housing Finance Agency Commissioner Jennifer Ho said.
"Every day there's going to be a new veteran that enters in [to homelessness]. But we said we want it to be rare and brief, and then permanent [housing] once they move off of that," Walz said.
Minnesota created a registry nearly five years ago to find homeless veterans and coordinate efforts to get them housed.
Walz said in June that the state is on track to end veteran homelessness by this Veterans Day. But he backtracked from that timeline Wednesday, saying he doesn't want to set an unrealistic expectation. Herke said he hopes to meet the goal in early 2020.
Minnesota has ended veteran homelessness in many communities across the state, according to the federal definition. The remaining areas of need include the Twin Cities and suburbs, St. Louis County and central Minnesota, Ho said.
The governor said he anticipated that the event at the VFW would trigger action from landlords, with the hope of housing several dozen more people in the next month.
But Pekay, the landlord who is housing her first homeless veteran, cautioned state officials that some of the homeless people remaining on their registry are without housing for a reason.
"For the people who have the power: How do you make it so we can take someone who is a murderer? So we can take someone who has a third-degree criminal sexual assault? Because I know some of these guys. I've got some of them working for me. But am I willing to put them in housing where I am responsible for 20 or 30 or 40 other people in that area?" Pekay asked.
Minnesota can eliminate veteran homelessness, Pekay continued, but state leaders need to work with landlords to develop properties where they can take people with serious criminal convictions without meeting "not-in-my-backyard" resistance.
There are also people who will always refuse housing, said Dalal Ahmad, who rents out townhouses and single-family properties.
She now rents exclusively to fellow veterans. Some suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and forget to pay rent, Ahmad said. She said landlords need help to ensure those veterans pay their rent.
"Landlords, some of us have mortgages that need to be met," Ahmad said.
To get homeless individuals or families back on track, it's critical to have organizations that can help them pay the initial costs of their first and last months' rent, said Josh Melendez, who served in the Navy.
Melendez lost his home to a fire in February. He and his wife and two children spent months living in hotels and, for a couple weeks, in a camper. They recently moved into a home in St. Louis Park. His daughter calls it her castle.
Walz and his administrators said their next goal is to end homelessness among children.
Said Ho: "If we can do it for veterans, we can do it for kids."