In southwest Minnesota, all homeless veterans finally have shelter

See a homeless veteran who needs help getting into an apartment? Call 1-888-LinkVet.

See a homeless veteran who needs help getting into an apartment? Call 1-888-LinkVet. James Lee

Spoiler: We knew what to do all along. We just needed to put in the effort.

On Tuesday, southwest Minnesota's 18 counties declared that they've cleared their housing waiting lists for homeless veterans. Their accomplishment was verified by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and Veterans Affairs.

This corner of Minnesota now stands among 40 communities nationwide -- plus the states of Delaware, Connecticut, and Virginia -- that have figured out a way to put all known homeless veterans in homes and to intercede immediately as new ones pop up.

The blueprint for doing so, which Minnesota established in 2013, is time and manpower intensive, but has turned out to be pretty much foolproof.

It begins by identifying everyone who needs aid. Any ordinary person who finds a homeless veteran sitting by the side of the road can help by calling 1-888-LinkVet, and Veterans Affairs will send somebody to find him or her as soon as humanly possible. Then a team of social workers will literally sit around a table and figure out what each individual needs to get a home and stay in it.

There are solutions for the most difficult cases. For example, a veteran diagnosed with debilitating PTSD who can't hold down a 9-5, has no rental history, and terrible credit may never be able to maintain an apartment alone. These people will be given a lifetime Section 8 housing voucher that will allow them to pay just a third of their income, which would typically come from Social Security disability.

"So what has been so powerful about the work of ending veteran homelessness, and the reason we're actually seeing the end of it here in Minnesota and other places around the country, is that they set this goal at the federal level, and it was a bipartisan goal," says Cathy ten Broeke, state director to Prevent and End Homelessness. "No other population has received this kind of attention."

Since Congress passed funding for the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program in 2010, it has made all the difference for those who seemed to face the most intractable barriers to keeping themselves off the streets, ten Broeke says.

Now, more than 850 Minnesota veterans have been given housing, and only 196 remain on the waiting list. In those instances, the biggest challenge is finding a landlord who will take a chance on a vet.

So if ending veteran homelessness really was that straightforward, why didn't we do it sooner?

"Since the beginning there's been people who have experienced homelessness, but not the kind of homelessness that we now just see and somehow accept in the United States. People sleeping under bridges and children homeless who are going to school but going back to cars to do their homework, that didn't happen until the early '80s," ten Broeke says. 

Part of the problem was the vilification that arose in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan, who pushed the caricature of the welfare queen who drove a Cadillac and ate steaks for every dinner on Uncle Sam's dime. It allowed Reagan to make massive cuts to HUD. Ever since, low-income Americans have been fighting a housing shortage that keeps basic shelter out of reach even to those who work multiple jobs. 

In more recent years, Congress seems to have figured out that ending homelessness is possible with a bit of time, effort, and money.

Though perhaps not for long. President Trump appears to be repeating Reagan's mistakes, proposing a $6 billion cut to HUD.