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North Dakota 'on the verge' of ending veteran homelessness

“While we’ve seen homelessness increase in other populations particularly with families with children, on any given night we now have 20 to 30 veterans who are homeless,” a VA official told The Forum.

the Veterans Community Resource and Referral Center in Fargo
Diana Hall, who manages the housing and employment programs for the Fargo Veterans Affairs Health Care System, stands outside the Veterans Community Resource and Referral Center, 721 1st Ave. N., on Sept. 11, 2020. The center seeks to meet the housing and health care needs of homeless veterans in North Dakota and northwest Minnesota.
Helmut Schmidt / The Forum
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FARGO — A decade ago more than 300 veterans were homeless, every night, across North Dakota.

Now, the Fargo Veterans Affairs Health Care System, through the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, is close to declaring an end to veteran homelessness in North Dakota, said Diana Hall, who manages the veterans housing and employment programs for the Fargo VA Health Care System.

“We’re right on the verge of being able to declare functional zero homelessness for veterans. We’re not quite there yet. We have a couple more veterans that we have to get housed, but we’re close,” Hall said, adding that she hopes the declaration can be made in 2022.

“While we’ve seen homelessness increase in other populations particularly with families with children, on any given night we now have 20 to 30 veterans who are homeless,” Hall said.

Homelessness is an ongoing issue that won’t fully go away, but: “The measure of ending homelessness is whether or not the VA has the processes in place to prevent homelessness and rapidly rehouse,” Hall said.

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Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Fargo.jpg
A view of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Fargo.
Dave Samson / The Forum

Fargo’s VA Health Care System covers all of North Dakota as well as west-central and northwest districts in Minnesota. Those Minnesota districts, which include the city of Moorhead, have already declared an end to veteran homelessness, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Minnesota had 315 veterans who remained homeless as of January 2020, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness . Across the state, about 7,940 people were homeless. Of that number, 946 families were homeless, 746 were unaccompanied young adults, and 1,787 people were experiencing chronic homelessness.

As of January 2020, North Dakota had an estimated 541 people experiencing homelessness on any given day, according to the council. Of that number, 54 were family households, 49 were veterans, 35 were unaccompanied young adults, and 92 were experiencing chronic homelessness.

In the U.S., three states and 82 communities have announced an end to veteran homelessness, according to the VA . The states are Virgina, Connecticut and Delaware.

The promise to end veteran homelessness in North Dakota began in 2009, Hall said.

“I was skeptical when I heard that because at that given time on any night we had about 300 homeless people who were veterans. That was really higher than the national rate. We wanted to look into that and we discovered that North Dakotans served at a higher rate, so that explained a higher percentage than other areas,” Hall said.

One of the first steps the VA in Fargo took was to partner with HUD and begin subsidizing rental apartments where veterans pay 30% and the VA pays for the rest.

The VA also began registering veterans, and is maintaining support systems to ensure veterans have a home.

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Such programs are not only giving veterans homes to go to, but also decreasing mortality rates and saving taxpayers money, Hall said.

“When I started tracking veterans in 2006 we served approximately 530 veterans, and the mortality rate that year was 35%. That was typically due to, it’s hard living on the streets, it’s hard on your body,” Hall said.

In 2013, with 1,100 veterans served, the mortality rate dropped to 15%. In 2019 that rate dropped further to 3.3%, and as of October 2021, the mortality rate dropped even more to 0.6%, she said.

“When veterans are housed, we see a dramatic reduction in mortality, including suicide. I started looking at national numbers and we see this across the board nationally. The mortality rates have dropped dramatically due to the VA homeless programs,” she said.

“It’s expensive, that cycle of homelessness, and our communities pay dearly for that through our taxes, and when they get housing and ongoing supports, all of that decreases," Hall said. "It’s worth every penny for sure."

C.S. Hagen is an award-winning journalist currently covering the education and activist beats mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
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