Jennifer Brooks
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A little boy is homeless tonight, in the land his father fought to defend.

He's 2 years old, the son of a combat veteran who served two tours in Iraq.

There should be no homeless veterans in Minnesota. That's state policy, if not yet reality.

You'd think the policy would go double for a veteran's toddler. You'd be wrong about that.

The little one had a home, once. One half of a Minneapolis duplex he shared with his mother and father, with a federal voucher to help cover the rent.

His father — let's call him Joe — struggled, the way some soldiers do when they come home from war. Last summer, Joe went away to the minimum-security federal prison camp in Duluth on drug charges. When the veteran went away, so did his housing benefits.

The Minneapolis Public Housing Authority could have extended the HUD-VASH voucher — an innovative program that combines federal rental assistance with Veterans Affairs services — to Joe's fiancée and child.

The MPHA could house another veteran. Or they could house a veteran's child.

They couldn't do both.

Not in Minneapolis, where rents are absurd, and the wait for affordable housing can stretch for a decade.

"When the voucher terminates, MPHA will not be offering the remaining family members the option of retaining the HUD-VASH voucher due to the significant need for these vouchers by homeless veterans," a staff attorney for the Minneapolis housing authority wrote to Tommy Johnson, the family's service officer at the Hopkins VFW.

There are 295 veterans who are homeless in Minnesota tonight. Ninety-two of them have Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) vouchers in hand, but nowhere to go, because no landlord will rent to them.

It's easy to say you support the troops. It's harder to open your doors to a tenant with a criminal record, or a substance abuse problem, or someone who wakes the neighbors at 3 a.m. screaming through night terrors.

The state offers incentives to landlords to persuade them to accept VASH vouchers. Last week, Gov. Tim Walz called for $276 million worth of state-funded affordable housing projects. Housing for veterans, for the elderly, for some of the 3,265 children who were homeless in Minnesota the last time we counted.

There are other federal rental subsidies for low-income residents. But in Minneapolis, the waiting list for one of those vouchers is thousands of families long.

Last summer, the MPHA opened the rental voucher waiting list for the first time in more than a decade and 14,701 people applied for 2,000 spots on the waiting list, the housing authority's attorney told Johnson. That waiting list includes 400 people who have been waiting for a housing voucher since 2008.

Offering one of those scarce Housing Choice Vouchers to Joe's family, the attorney wrote, "would circumvent the waiting list … when there are approximately 2,400 people currently waiting to qualify."

A spokesman for the housing authority could not speak about the case, citing data privacy laws, but said the agency followed its published policies.

On Nov. 30, 2019, the housing voucher expired and mother and son were out on the street.

No veteran wants to take a home away from another veteran's child.

The leadership of the state's nine major veterans' organizations met last week to draft a letter, asking the Minneapolis housing authority to reconsider.

Johnson shared the family's story on the American Legion website last week.

"The message the veteran community is hearing is loud and clear," he wrote. "There are now 78 communities in over 30 states that have ended veteran homelessness. Minneapolis and St. Paul are not on that list."

While Joe serves out his sentence and worries about his family, a friend has offered the mother and child a temporary place to stay.

The mother — let's call her Mary — is house-hunting and searching for work as a nurse's aide. She's smart and resilient, Johnson said, and she'll have the Hopkins VFW to help with expenses like a rental deposit, once she finds a place she can afford.

If she can find a place she can afford. • 612-673-4008 Follow Jennifer on Twitter: @stribrooks