Serving homeless vets in N.D. backcountry
In North Dakota, a number of homeless veterans live alone on the state’s windswept prairies and rugged badlands, miles from civilization. Their homes can be abandoned grain bins, farmhouses or barns, or shelters of their own making, including leantos and underground huts. They live off the land, in total isolation.
Ellen McKinnon is a Salvation Army outreach specialist who finds these veterans and attempts to get them into proper housing. She regularly travels across the state to make contact with the men, offer food and water, establish trust, and present her message of hope.
She’s currently working with 19 veterans living “primitively,” most of whom are Vietnam era. She discovered many of them through a partnership she created with construction workers, railroad employees, Fish and Game officers, and others who work in remote locations. When they spot a homeless person in the middle of nowhere, they tell McKinnon.
Most of the veterans are hospitable.
“It’s like talking with your neighbor – we sit on five-gallon buckets and shoot the breeze,” said McKinnon, who is escorted by armed law enforcement during every visit to every veteran. “They’re gracious, hospitable and funny, and super interesting to listen to.”
Some of the visits last five minutes, some five hours. Other times, the men just want to be left alone. For that reason, McKinnon must be deliberate in making her presence known.
“One of the guys who lives underground likes me to honk from the road two miles away – three long honks, so he knows I’m coming in,” she said.
When the men do invite McKinnon into their areas, she’s careful to walk in their exact footsteps to avoid booby traps.
“One of the main ones is foot traps, which were common in Vietnam,” she said. “And you see a lot of snares.”
McKinnon always brings the men fresh food and water. At times, she’s forced to break out the heavy artillery: “My two best outreach tools are beef jerky and toilet paper,” she said with a laugh.
As supplies allow, McKinnon also offers provisions that are more substantial, including winter boots, blankets and tarps. Although these are welcome necessities, “There’s a fine line between sustaining and enabling,” she cautioned. “As veterans, they deserve clean water and good food. But we don’t want to give them so much that it’s easy to live the way they’ve chosen.”
McKinnon has helped six such veterans move into permanent, supportive housing in the past two years.
“It’s not an easy job, but it’s very rewarding,” she said.
Reaching out to these particular veterans is only part of what McKinnon does. She and seven other Salvation Army case managers help hundreds of other homeless veterans in cities and towns throughout North Dakota.
Since September 2011, the team has helped nearly 500 veterans and veteran families secure permanent housing through one-on-one case management, financial assistance, help applying for VA benefits, referrals to other community resources, and more.
It’s all made possible through a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs grant program called Supportive Services for Veteran Families, along with The Salvation Army’s partnership with the North Dakota Coalition for Homeless People Inc. The program covers all of North Dakota’s 53 counties, with Salvation Army case managers in Bismarck, Devils Lake, Dickinson, Fargo, Grand Forks and Minot.
When the program started in 2011, veterans represented about 22 percent of North Dakota’s homeless population. Today, that number is 12 percent.
“The Salvation Army’s commitment to veterans dates back to our serving soldiers in foxholes during World War I,” said Lt. Col. Robert Thomson, Salvation Army Northern Division Commander. “A hundred years later, we are proud to support today’s veterans as they fight a different battle – homelessness.”
Among other criteria, veterans and veteran families eligible to receive benefits through the program must be homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, and must earn 50 percent or less of their community’s median income.