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Veteran suicides, homelessness top priorities for Minnesota's new Veterans Affairs commissioner

The suicide rate among veterans in Minnesota is rising, and homelessness remains a persistent problem in areas of the state. They are areas of focus for the new commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs.

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Larry Herke, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, said the issues of suicides by veterans and homelessness among veterans are among the top priorities for him. He described the challenges and efforts while meeting Tuesday in Montevideo with city officials and members of the Montevideo Veterans Home Committee. Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune

MONTEVIDEO — Minnesota continues to lose anywhere from 90 to 100 veterans to suicide each year.

And despite work that started in 2005 to end homelessness among veterans, there remain many with no place to call home. There were 288 veterans who have been without a permanent home for 90 or more days at the latest count.

Addressing both issues is now the focus for Larry Herke, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs. During a visit Tuesday to Montevideo, the new commissioner, appointed by DFL Governor Tim Walz, described the challenges and efforts being made.

Each month, 32 to as many as 76 veterans come into the Veterans Affairs system in need of permanent housing, according to Herke. He said the state has succeeded in achieving a “functional zero” count of homeless veterans in five of 10 regions in the state. The problem persists mainly in the areas of Minneapolis and St. Paul and surrounding communities and in St. Louis County, he said.

The commissioner said he is working in hopes of developing permanent housing for veterans as a long-term solution.

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The department provides homeless veterans with rental assistance vouchers, but has had difficulty finding landlords in the metropolitan area with efficiency and one-bedroom units willing to accept homeless veterans. He currently has 110 veterans with rental assistance vouchers who cannot find rental units. Each is working with the VA and is supported with counseling and other services aimed at stabilizing their lives.

The veterans have challenges. They’ve had issues with addictions, financial problems and many remain out of work. “We need landlords who will take a chance on these veterans,” he said.

Finding a permanent residence is key to helping homeless veterans return to the work force and getting their lives back on track, according to the commissioner.

The state has 318,000 veterans. The number is declining but the suicide rate has remained consistent, he said.

The suicides are occurring among veterans of all ages and from all conflicts, although Vietnam War-era veterans represent the larger share. They represent the largest group of veterans at this time, Herke said.

The commissioner, who retired as a colonel after 31 years of military service, said he has seen success with suicide training programs. Teaching people to identify warning signs and maintain a watch on veterans identified as being vulnerable can be very effective in preventing suicides, he said.

Related Topics: VETERANS
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