Kevin Chapman met them on the streets where he lived. Military veterans, huddled around oil drums, burning trash to stay warm.
"Some way, somehow, these veterans were always where I was, all over the country," said Chapman, 62, a graduate of the former Edina West High School. "Sometimes we would share stories about our lives, how we got to where we were at."
For Chapman, that was "a series of wrong choices and bad decisions" that ultimately led to a 12-step program and sobriety. Charting a new path in life, he met a woman and they decided to start over in Texas. And as he looked for direction, he remembered the veterans he'd met.
In Texas, Chapman created a transitional living center for veterans in an abandoned industrial building, feeding his charges "99-cent frozen dinners and cans of Beanie Weenies from the Dollar General."
Later, he moved to North Carolina and began creating supportive housing there, a portfolio that's now grown to about 25 residences serving about 150 vets.
And now he's starting a new chapter in his home state. At a meeting earlier this month, the Albert Lea City Council approved an agreement for Chapman to purchase an abandoned city-owned house and renovate it into transitional veterans housing.
It's a deal that's been welcomed by Albert Lea officials.
"Any community in the state of Minnesota, I think, is going to say they need help with their housing," said Mayor Rich Murray. "This was a way to take a home that was damaged and get it back on the market.
"I am a veteran. That's one reason I like working on veterans' issues," he said. "As a community, this is something we feel will help veterans, will help our community — just a really good project."
City Manager Ian Rigg called housing "a huge issue for us as a community wanting to grow and support our local businesses. I felt that this organization could bring in a much-needed option for those veterans in need of housing.
"In general, for the community, the ability to bring new life into an abandoned building is always a plus."
The city took ownership of the house on Giles Place after it was damaged in a fire. Chapman bought the property for $18,000 and has one year to make specified repairs. When finished, it's anticipated that three veterans will live in the house, paying a modest rent and overseen by a case manager.
Chapman said he picked Albert Lea in part because of its proximity to the Veterans Administration (VA) hospital in Rochester, adding that its more rural location is also a plus.
"A lot of what we're hearing from the VA is, these smaller rural areas, they're getting left out," he said. "The big cities are getting the good stuff."
He believes that his small housing projects provide an effective way to connect with the struggling residents, who often are unhoused or seeking to recover from addiction.
"There's only one way to fix the problem," Chapman said. "It's done one man at a time. And that means you sit across from that man, you look him in the eyes. You say, 'I've been there. I can help. Take my hand and follow me out.' "
And choosing Minnesota also offers him a chance at personal rehabilitation after a troubled young adulthood.
"I'd like to someday come back to Minnesota, lift my head up high, and have someone tell me, 'Welcome home. Job well done.' "