Homeless Veterans in Suburbs a More Hidden Problem

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Homeless Korean War veteran
In this Nov. 20, 2013 photo, a homeless Korean War veteran left, speaks with Boston Health Care for the Homeless street team outreach coordinator Romeena Lee on a sidewalk in Boston. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Derek Holt knows the vexing problem of veteran homelessness inside and out.

Holt served in the North Dakota National Guard, where he deployed to Iraq in 2003 and 2004 before graduating from the University of North Dakota and working at Twin Cities emergency homeless shelters for a decade.

Now a homeless program coordinator at the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, Holt and his colleagues aim to make Minnesota the fourth state in the country to end veteran homelessness, and do so in the next 18 months.

Holt knows the work focuses on urban areas, as most homeless veterans are in Hennepin and Ramsey counties. But he also knows a more hidden population of homeless veterans — those in exurban and suburban counties — come with their own challenges.

In exburban and suburban counties, homeless veterans tend to be younger, with an average age of 43, Holt said, while homeless veterans in Hennepin and Ramsey counties have an average age in the early 60s.

"You don't see similar numbers in volume in those counties," Holt said. "But they tend to be younger. Some of it is more families experiencing homelessness. There's not lots of people who stay in homelessness in the suburbs; generally, we identify them, then they transfer out of homelessness. In the metro, they can get stuck in homelessness, which could lead to that age difference."

The challenges of homeless veterans in suburban and exurban counties will be a primary focus at Beyond the Yellow Ribbon of Chaska's fifth annual golf tournament and online auction Monday at Deer Run Golf Course in Victoria. This year's event has raised more than $50,000 for the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans, the state's foremost organization tackling veteran homelessness.

Over the past two decades, the percentage of homeless Minnesotans who are also veterans was sliced in half, from 16% of the statewide homeless population in 2000 to 7% in 2018, according to the Wilder Foundation. In 1991, the proportion of homeless Minnesotans who were veterans was 22%.

Homeless veterans in exurban and suburban counties tend to have more resources and better support systems than those in urban counties, Holt said. But when veterans experience homelessness, they tend to go where the most emergency resources are — in urban counties — which inflates urban numbers.

More than a third of veterans experiencing homelessness in Minnesota cite eviction as what led them to homelessness, according to the Wilder Foundation. In suburban and exurban areas, Holt notes a common theme: when a developer converts a rental property from affordable housing to more luxury-priced units, that can render a veteran homeless.

The number of homeless veterans in suburban and exurban counties around the metro — which the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs calls the Suburban Metro Area continuum of care, and comprises Washington, Dakota, Scott, Carver and Anoka counties — remains historically low but stubborn.

In 2015, 16 veterans were on the homeless registry in those five suburban and exurban counties. That number increased to 60 in 2019 and now sits at 32.

That five-county area in 2020 satisfied the federal government's definition of effectively ending veteran homelessness, but Holt points out that definition is more about ensuring the system is effective: that veterans generally transition out of homelessness within 90 days, that no veterans are experiencing chronic or long-term homelessness, and that the number of veterans exiting homelessness exceeds those entering homelessness.

"We're not saying there will never be another veteran experiencing homelessness," Holt said. "It's that we have a system that makes homelessness rare, brief and non-reoccurring."

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