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Fears abound that virus could wreck a decade of progress with veteran homelessness

Veteran homelessness (Matthew Woitunski/WikiCommons)

When Robert Reynolds, a 54-year-old plumber and Army veteran, was released from the Wright County Jail in January, it was without ceremony or much help. He was wearing a windbreaker and walked nine miles to a Walmart, where a friend picked him up and paid for a week at a motel.

He’d been steadily employed as a plumber until a dispute with his then-wife landed him in jail on charges Reynolds said are false. After seven months in jail, the courts agreed with Reynolds, dismissing the case “in the interests of justice.” Reynolds — his bank account emptied, his wife having left town — soon found himself at Higher Ground homeless shelter in Minneapolis.

“It could happen to anybody,” Reynolds said. “I used to tell people, ‘There’s no way I could ever be homeless!’ Yeah, right.”

Advocates for Minnesota veterans fear that all the progress made over the past decade in reducing veteran homelessness could be lost in the coming months as the coronavirus pandemic creates havoc with the economy. With unemployment spiking and many industries largely on hold, veterans living paycheck-to-paycheck could tip over the edge.

Reynolds is one recipient of a statewide effort to nip coronavirus-related veteran homelessness in the bud before it blooms into a much bigger problem.

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In March, Reynolds connected with the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans. He had no idea a pandemic was sweeping the nation. Using an emergency COVID-19 donation for homeless veterans from the DAV Foundation of Minnesota, Reynolds’ case worker got him out of the crowded shelter and to an extended-stay hotel in Bloomington. Last week, Reynolds got into transitional housing in Minneapolis for formerly homeless veterans while he gets back on his feet.

“When the moratorium on evictions is over, I expect us to explode,” said James McClodden, an Army veteran who served in Desert Storm and is Reynolds’ case manager at MAC-V. “You don’t have to pay rent now. (But) this debt is not forgiven. You stretch it out. What happens in June? As bad as it is now, it’s going to turn much, much worse.”

Gov. Tim Walz has prohibited housing evictions during the COVID-19 stay-at-home order, but when Minnesota’s peacetime emergency ends, the moratorium on evictions will be lifted. Legislators from both parties want to avoid mass homelessness when those overdue rents must be paid, but the parties disagreed this week on how much aid the state can afford to give to help people pay rent and mortgages.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs has prioritized the immediate safety and the most vulnerable homeless veterans, whether it’s those living in crowded shelters or on the streets. The organization has helped move 27 veterans into hotels since March.

Paul Williams, the department’s homeless program supervisor, expects to see a surge on the state veteran homeless registry. It could erase the progress made over the past decade, as the state has reduced its veteran homeless population by more than half.

“The number one thing you have to do is stabilize somebody’s housing,” said McClodden, the MAC-V case manager. “If you don’t have a place to lay your head, the next steps are impossible.”

McClodden believes state and county agencies have shown empathy in helping the most vulnerable homeless veterans during this pandemic, by taking older veterans and veterans with pre-existing health conditions out of shelters and putting them up in hotels.

But he still fears what is to come down the road for veterans teetering toward homelessness.

That was the thinking of the DAV Foundation of Minnesota when it decided to forgo replacing two of its vans and use that money to fight veteran homelessness — despite their own donations being down 61% this fiscal year. The foundation sent $15,000 to MAC-V as well as $10,000 to Every Third Saturday, a Minneapolis nonprofit dedicated to helping homeless veterans.

The number of homeless veterans in Minnesota has actually decreased in recent months. The homeless registry was close to 300 a few months ago but was down to 238 this week.

For Reynolds, the veteran who recently moved into transitional housing, the next steps still won’t be easy. His specialty is clearing drains and sewers. Other plumbers have told him that with people staying home, drain work is in demand. But he still hasn’t found work. He had a job lined up with a friend’s plumbing company – until the friend found out he’d recently been homeless, and stopped returning his calls. He was walking up to plumbing companies, but their doors were locked. Now he’s calling around, but companies tell him nobody is hiring. Just this week he may have gotten a line on plumbing job; he hopes to find out in the coming days.

“Everything takes longer because of COVID,” he said. “I could get hired in one day normally, but COVID has affected everything.”

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© 2020 the Star Tribune