Jaydoo Vang spent many years in the Wisconsin Army National Guard training for combat overseas that never came. But he was ready and excited for the challenge.
After the military, he planned to finish school and start a business. He drew inspiration from his parents, who escaped Laos during the Vietnam War and settled in Wausau, Wis.
Vang, 30, moved to the Twin Cities for personal growth and the opportunity to fulfill his dreams. But he struggled as an uneducated laborer, sometimes sleeping on the couch of friends and always afraid that he may have no place to live.
He sought the help of Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans (MACV), a statewide organization with the goal of ending homelessness for veterans. The group is now expanding its mission to help veterans of color by building affordable housing on forfeited property in north Minneapolis.
“I owe them so much,” said Vang, who moved last spring with two other vets into MACV’s newest property in north Minneapolis. “They are a powerful organization that sets people up to succeed.”
The Hennepin County Board last month approved the sale of the forfeited property in north Minneapolis to the veterans council for $58,588. MACV will partner with other groups to build four-bedroom homes for veterans who face homelessness or barriers for mainstream housing.
Because Hennepin County can’t sell properties directly to a nonprofit group, the land was passed through the county’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority and then sold to MACV. The veterans council had approached county officials last spring looking for property in north Minneapolis, said Jeff Strand, who manages forfeited properties for the county.
“The council bought the properties at market value, but state law allows for reduced prices to accommodate new development for affordable housing and removal of blight,” Strand said. “We are supportive of the goal of ending homelessness for veterans.”
The project was pushed by County Commissioner Kevin Anderson, who campaigned for office in 2020 on veterans issues and homelessness. It checked all the boxes for the county goal of creating more affordable housing, particularly for groups that may face additional obstacles.
“It is important to look at the veteran community and say how we can make sure we are serving them in a responsible way,” said Anderson, who has relatives and friends who served in the military. “I’m hoping this model can be replicated in other areas.”
The council owns properties that house veterans throughout the state, but it’s been a long time since it’s purchased land for housing in Minneapolis. And this is the first time that MACV, which was started 30 years ago, has invested in forfeited property as a means to end homelessness for veterans.
The organization owns several properties in south Minneapolis near the VA Medical Center transferred to it by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Jon Lovald, MACV’s chief operating officer, lived near one of the houses and never knew it was built for homeless veterans.
“They are just part of the community,” he said. “We want to get them back on their feet to hopefully start renting a place on their own.”
Vets in MACV housing pay rent and get extra services to help them succeed, said Lovald, who served 25 years in the military. It’s rare that a vet will come right off the street into a council property, he said.
“Usually we will be working with a vet for months,” he said. “We need to build trust with that person.”
The problems facing homeless veterans are similar to anyone at risk of homelessness, he said. They may have poor rental and criminal histories, or issues with substance abuse and mental health.
“But they can use our housing to demonstrate to landlords that they are good tenants,” said Lovald. “Very few landlords are interested in somebody coming from jail. But our vets are great tenants because they don’t want to go back to jail.”
Single adult veterans are harder to house than a veteran with a spouse or a family, said Neil Doyle, director of veterans services for Hennepin County. While the number of homeless veterans overall has declined in the last decade, there’s been a spike during the pandemic, he said.
According to a state registry, there are 126 veterans reported as homeless.
“Getting them housing is a bit trickier because they also need to be close to places where they can manage their mental health or chemical issues, and be close to public transportation or where they work,” said Doyle, an Army veteran who served in Iraq and Kosovo.
Vang is grateful for MACV’s help in turning his life around. It’s a bonus that he lives with two other veterans with whom he can share his experiences, he said.
“I’m sure I’d be facing homelessness and unemployment without the council,” he said. “They picked me up at my lowest.”