A bitter, subzero wind lashed at their clothing as an aging couple and their small family of pets — three cats and a bulldog — emerged from a rusted Chevrolet Malibu packed to the ceiling with their belongings.
The couple, Mark and Marjorie Kray, had spent most of the past three years sleeping in their car, moving from highway rest stops to store parking lots on the outer edges of the Twin Cities. Bleary-eyed and cold, they braced themselves for disappointment as they entered a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs office in downtown Minneapolis.
To their surprise, a team of VA outreach workers responded instantly, brewing them coffee while peppering Mark with questions about his service in the Army. Within hours, the couple were signed up for a federal veterans housing voucher and booked into a nearby hotel until an apartment was found.
“It’s so overwhelming,” Marjorie Kray, 59, said through tears. “It’s like someone waved a magic wand and turned our lives upside down.”
The Krays are among hundreds of Minnesotans who benefited in recent years as part of an intensifying push to eradicate homelessness among veterans. A goal that once seemed unattainable — securing safe and stable housing for every veteran known to be homeless — is now within reach. With military precision and the innovative use of data analytics, agencies in a broad swath of Minnesota — covering more than half the state’s counties — have cleared their waiting lists of veterans seeking housing. State officials predict that by year’s end, Minnesota could become just the fourth state in the nation to effectively end veteran homelessness.
“The intensive, collaborative approach that we have seen in Minnesota is unique — and is a model for the rest of the country,” said Kathryn Monet, chief executive of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.
State and local agencies have reached this point by adopting the sort of coordinated urgency normally reserved for disease outbreaks or other public health emergencies. The Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs created the nation’s first statewide registry of homeless veterans. The list is updated in real time and shared with every county and tribal agency in the state, as well as more than two dozen nonprofits. All veterans on the registry are appointed a case manager, who helps them enroll in benefits and even drives them to meetings with landlords.
The state also developed a regional system for tracking progress and ensuring that no veteran falls through the cracks. Every two weeks, 10 regional housing offices across the state — from the southwestern corner to the Iron Range — hold separate conference calls in which teams of social workers address the unique challenges of every person in the database.
And then there is aggressive outreach: Every week, dozens of workers fan out to emergency shelters, prisons and public places where homeless veterans tend to congregate and enroll them in housing, health and other social service programs designed to get them back on their feet. State-funded groups like the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans (MACV) even send drivers to pick up homeless veterans and ferry them to safe housing.
Although the state’s push to end veteran homelessness began nearly a decade ago, it has intensified rapidly in recent years.
“We are absolutely laser-focused on getting to zero,” Neal Loidolt, chief executive of MACV, said as he made the rounds of a Minneapolis homeless shelter one afternoon. “But we shouldn’t stop there: We should take what we are learning with veterans and apply it to the entire homeless population.”
That is already starting to happen.
In Hennepin County, for instance, officials have begun targeting particularly vulnerable groups — including youth and people who are chronically homeless — using separate, real-time databases modeled on the veterans registry. In northern St. Louis County, officials hold regular conference calls to discuss individual cases and strategies to reduce homelessness, borrowing another page from the veterans’ playbook.
‘We go to them’
It was 23 degrees below zero on a weeknight when a trio of veteran outreach workers, in parkas and work boots, arrived at the doorway of a homeless shelter in south Minneapolis. Moments later the doors swung open, and the smell of bodies and hot food rose from a basement shelter crammed with mattresses and blankets.
“Have we got any veterans here?” Tim Myers, one of the outreach workers, shouted to the swirl of people passing through the doors.
With clipboards in hand, they scoured the crowded room. An older man who described himself as a Vietnam veteran approached warily, expressing concern about whether he had enough military experience to qualify. A member of the team calmly explained that even one day of active-duty service can be enough to qualify for housing and employment benefits.
“We don’t sit around and wait for veterans to come to us. We go to them,” said Jonelle Glubke, program director with the VA Community Resource and Referral Center (CRRC) in Minneapolis.
This intensive approach has helped nearly 1,700 homeless veterans find housing since the state created the real-time registry. The official count of homeless vets has declined by 53 percent since 2010, to 234 individuals statewide — far exceeding declines in other states.
To reduce recidivism — veterans cycling through homelessness — groups like MACV also try to connect every person on the registry with an employment specialist.
Donald Belle, 56, a former sergeant in the U.S. Army, said he has struggled with addiction and homelessness since he left the military — a decision, he said, that left him “rudderless.” He drifted from job to job, and crime to crime, until he finally sought substance treatment at the VA hospital in St. Cloud. While there, he connected with a social worker with MACV who found him a job as a janitor as well as a room in a transitional home for veterans.
“Veterans are like knives sharpening other knives,” said Belle, who has stayed sober for nearly three years. ”We keep each other sharp when we stick together.”
Tent burns down
Robert Kleen, 60, credits the veterans groups with saving his life. A former U.S. Army officer, Kleen began a descent into homelessness in 2009 following the deaths of his wife and children in separate car accidents in North Dakota. Suffering from severe depression, Kleen quit his job as a truck driver, abruptly moved to Minneapolis and began living on the streets. Kleen eventually pitched a tent on a dirt clearing beneath a downtown Minneapolis bridge, where he and about 10 others watched over one another for safety.
Yet the small encampment was not enough to protect Kleen. On a recent morning, as traffic roared by overhead, Kleen pulled up his shirt to reveal a 2-inch scar just below his heart where another homeless man stabbed him with a butcher knife last September. Weeks later, Kleen badly burned his right hand when he attempted to heat his tent with a makeshift stove and set the fabric on fire.
“It seemed like God was sending me a message — that if I didn’t get help, then I would end up dead,” Kleen said.
When help finally arrived last fall, it was beyond anything Kleen had imagined. He was staying at the Higher Ground Shelter in Minneapolis after his tent burned down when he saw a sign on a door promoting services for veterans. A social worker immediately connected him to the VA resource center nearby, which found that Kleen qualified for a housing voucher that covers about two-thirds of his rent. By January, social workers had identified a landlord willing to accept his voucher.
Last week, Kleen was ebullient as he walked into a studio apartment just a short walk from where his tent burned to the ground. With a gleeful shout of “Yahoo!” he dropped a plastic bag with all his belongings to the floor and gazed over his new home with a look of contentment.
“For the first time in years,” he said, “I can hold my head high and not live in fear — just knowing where I’m going to be from now on.”