One man’s bum, another man’s hero

Imagine a man sitting on the sidewalk downtown Minneapolis with a cardboard sign in his hands. What do you see? Has he spent more time on Nicollet Mall or in central Ramadi?

Most veterans come home, get discharged and go on to live happy, healthy, productive lives. For others, the next battle begins. They have a fall out in their relationship, stay with extended family or friends until they exhaust that, sleep in pay-by-the-week motels, then in a car and then on the street or in shelters.  Those of us in the social services have encountered veterans from every conflict, including as long ago as World War II and as recently as Afghanistan.

During a public meeting on safety downtown, one of the topics was panhandling. A picture of a troublesome beggar was shown to a room full of police officers, lawyers, business people and security guards. My guess is few of them have done two tours in Iraq. The man in the picture had. It’s interesting how one man’s bum was another man’s hero.

That soldier shared these words with the state Legislature as a community educator with St. Stephen’s.


A lot of attention is paid to soldiers returning from Iraq. But after the returning home ceremonies, another battle can begin … 

In my first tour in Iraq, I was in the Red Bull infantry division, 1st Brigade combat team. It is the longest serving unit in Operation Iraqi Freedom. I ended up being there one year and six months after the tour was extended. I came home, my mother passed away, I was honorably discharged. A short time later, I enlisted in the regular Army. I was 39 Bravo, a military police officer. We deployed to Bagdad for another 12 months. The war was very difficult for me and everybody. I saw things people shouldn’t see.

When a person doesn’t have housing, survival skills kick in. Sleeping on University campuses or outside is sometimes the last resort. For some, the Stone Arch is a bridge, for others, it’s a roof.

I was a good soldier. There are a lot of people who just kind of flunk out of it. It was difficult. I imagine it is difficult for you to hear my story. Some people may ask why the V.A. isn’t taking care of me. For some veterans, receiving benefits can take many months if not years. For others, the process is overwhelming or they live nowhere near a V.A. hospital or don’t have transportation.

This morning, I was walking through Macy’s. Often, when people like me walk through, the employees hand out ads to everyone but us. Today I had a dress shirt on to speak with St. Stephen’s. They handed me an ad for Versace glasses. I felt like I fit in. Maybe you can overcome your despair about what to do by knowing that you are helping me overcome mine.


Now the good news: We are approaching the end of homelessness for veterans. The number of homeless vets decreased 24 percent between 2010-2013 nationwide. In Hennepin County the number has been decreased by over 50 percent.

When our nation commits to and invests in ending homelessness, we can do it. New resources and system changes are making this possible. The Veterans Administration has implemented a routine assessment at its medical centers to identify vets at risk of becoming homeless. Communities like ours are receiving V.A. Supportive Housing vouchers, which helps vets who are not yet working afford housing. At last count in January 2014, we identified 350 homeless vets in the state. Minnesota may be the first state to end homelessness for our veterans.

What can you do? Our veterans, especially those with gaps in employment or housing histories, need landlords and employers to give them a chance. Can you help? Contact me to discuss. Or, talk to your elected officials, thank them and let them know that you support the end of veteran homelessness. Mayors Betsy Hodges of Minneapolis and Chris Coleman of St. Paul have joined a national challenge among mayors to end homelessness in their municipalities.

Finally, when you pass by someone with a cardboard sign, remember, that bum might be a hero. They protected us. Now, it’s our turn to be the protectors. The Warrior Ethos is leave no soldier behind. Minnesotans have decided that homeless vets won’t be left behind and it’s working.

Monica Nilsson is an advocate for children, teens, their parents and single adults who are at risk of losing their home or are now homeless. Contact her for conversation at St. Stephen’s Human Services —