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More than 800 homeless Minnesota veterans are finding stability through housing vouchers

By MARISSA EVANS | Star Tribune (Minneapolis) | Published: November 18, 2019

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. (Tribune News Service) — If Jacob Bloom had not found his apartment, he thinks he’d still be on the streets. Or dead.

After several years of homelessness, the Marine veteran who served in Iraq has started laying the groundwork for a stable civilian life. Four months ago, he moved into an apartment in a quiet building in Hopkins and earlier this month started a new construction job. Bloom, 35, said his luck turned after he got help paying his rent with a federal Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) voucher.

“Once you’re in a hole like that, it’s extremely difficult to pull yourself out of it and it’s almost impossible to do it without any assistance from somebody,” Bloom said.

Bloom is one of 862 formerly homeless veterans statewide benefiting from the rent support. But more than 100 veterans who qualify for a VASH voucher are still looking for a landlord willing to accept it. The journey to permanent housing for homeless veterans is often challenged by lack of employment, eviction filings, criminal history and mental health and drug and alcohol misuse.

The vouchers are more than money for rent. Tenants work with caseworkers from the VA and housing agencies to get connected with addiction treatment, job placement, mental health care and more. A joint effort between the U.S. departments of Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs, the vouchers first came to Minnesota in 2008.

At the end of October there were 294 people in the state’s Veteran Homeless Registry. Gov. Tim Walz has made it a goal for Minnesota to become the fourth state to end veteran homelessness. In a recent interview, Walz said that the VASH program is “one of the most successful programs that the state uses” and “a cornerstone” of Minnesota’s veteran homelessness plan.

“What you know is when you rent to a veteran, even if they’re experiencing a little bit of trouble, there’s a lot of support there,” Walz said. “For the most part you get one of these folks, what you’re going to find is a really great tenant and I think it’s just getting that word out to folks.”

Jonah Bridger, a landlord with the VASH program since 2014, has 11 units for veterans in an apartment building in north Minneapolis. He describes himself as “the neighbor that happens to be the caretaker/landlord.” A Navy veteran who served in the Gulf War, Bridger said he was homeless for several months before he joined the service. It’s one of the reasons the program appealed to him.

Bridger keeps in regular contact with agency caseworkers and his residents to see how they’re doing, if the units need to be repaired and see if he can help with other issues going on. He also has a bulletin board in the building where he posts fliers advertising job fairs, veteran events, places that are hiring, legal assistance for veterans, and other services. Bridger said he tries to take an active role with his tenants in case he needs to step in, but it’s not easy.

“At some point these guys crossed that line to defend this country, they were willing to step forward when other people wouldn’t have, I think that’s one of the reasons why I go a little farther and do a little more to give them a chance,” Bridger said. “At one point they were that hero and I’m maybe being a little idealistic but I’m kind of hoping working with [veterans and social service agencies] … that these guys can come back to being that hero again.”

Getting out of the service and learning how to live as a civilian “you find yourself lost and unfocused,” Bloom said.

After he left the service in 2011, Bloom moved back home to Idaho to be closer to family. When that didn’t work out, he moved to Minnesota but his housing situation was also in flux. He said vets don’t always know the resources or groups available and shelters are not the best environment for people trying to start over. Bloom found his apartment in Hopkins days after being approved for the voucher. He credits the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans (MACV) with helping connect him with the voucher program and making the transition.

“I’ve met other vets as well, there’s a few out there that have been homeless, chronically homeless, since they’ve been out of the service,” Bloom said. “Everybody gets their own trials and tribulations, some are just kind of lost after getting out of the service … Sometimes life hits you and you find yourself down on your luck.”

Veterans have access to the voucher as long as they meet income requirements, said Jonelle Glubke, program director for the VA Community Resource and Referral Center. If they’re evicted, the center would help them find temporary housing while they search. The VA and public housing authority also work with the veteran to prevent future problems. Glubke pointed out that veterans often do not need the voucher over time because housing stability often enables them to overcome their other problems.

“Our goal is ending homelessness among veterans in the state of Minnesota so what we have been working on is having a system in place so that if there is a veteran experiencing homelessness that our response system is that their experience of homelessness is rare, brief and not reoccurring,” Glubke said.

The affordable housing shortage in the Twin Cities area is another added stress, said Kristi Amend, VASH program coordinator for the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority. She pointed out many of the veterans they’re seeing rely on public assistance for income. While they may find a unit in their price range, the housing authority will not disburse the voucher funds until the unit passes inspection. A veteran can move in to the unit — at their own risk — but until the inspection is passed they will pay the full amount of rent. If it’s not up to HUD standards then the owner would have a chance to make fixes.

Amend said it’s important for landlords to communicate any concerns about late rent, behavioral problems or other issues in advance.

“You know one bad apple spoils it for everyone else,” Amend said. “When I do my briefings with my vets, I always remind them that they’re representing the VASH program and the Section 8 program as a whole and their behavior, what they do, may impact other landlords renting to our participants.”

For now, Bloom is looking ahead to his future. He hopes to one day work for an organization that helps veterans in the same way he was helped.

“I’ve seen what MACV can do for veterans,” he said. “Seeing how much they care, that’s what I’d like to do for employment.”

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