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Housing & Redevelopment Authority of Bemidji: Photograph exhibit of homelessness in worth seeing

Local National Guardsman Brent Steinmetz views a photo exhibit at Northland Apartments revealing the realities for Minnesota's homeless veterans. Steinmentz was surprised to see a portrait of a fellow Guard member from the Detroit Lakes area among the 46 images on display as part of the exhibit, titled "Portraits of Home II: Veterans in Search of Shelter in Greater Minnesota," which will be on display for 90 days. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Faces of men and women, old and young, line the hallways along the main floor of Northland Apartments.

Some smile for the camera, while others have tears in their eyes. They are homeless veterans of war. Each has a story captured on film.

Portraits of Home II - Veterans in Search of Stable Housing in Greater Minnesota is on display now through Sept. 1 at Northland Apartments, located at 619 America Ave. N.W. The traveling exhibit is presented by the Greater Minnesota Housing Fund, in cooperation with the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans and Heading Home Minnesota.

The images, taken by six photographers, reveal the challenges faced by veterans in Minnesota living under difficult living conditions. Their facial expressions and poses reflect their struggles to maintain stability, safety and dignity for themselves and their families.

The exhibit builds upon the Portraits of Home - Families in Search of Shelter exhibit sponsored by the GMHF that traveled around the state from 2005-2007.

This is the first time the exhibit has been shown in the north-western region of Minnesota. It's also the first time it's been displayed in a housing authority.

Laura Straw, executive director of the Housing & Redevelopment Authority of Bemidji, was instrumental in bringing the exhibit to Bemidji. To her, displaying such artwork in a housing authority sends a powerful message about homelessness in Minnesota.

"The first person through the door today, interestingly enough, told me, 'I was sent here today because I'm a homeless vet, and I've been homeless for three years,'" Straw said. "So we got him an appointment and he's filling out applications but we have a waiting list."

The HRA of Bemidji develops and operates housing and housing programs for low-income families. In Bemidji, it operates 120 units of low-rent public housing and provides rental assistance to over 200 families.

According to Straw, Northland Apartments have been at about 99 percent occupancy for the past two and a half years. The HRA's 20 houses are also at maximum occupancy.

"There's just not enough housing," Straw said. "Homelessness - it's really unseen here."

Friday's grand opening of the Portraits of Home II exhibit was what Straw hoped it would be - well attended. It included guest presentations by Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, and City Councilor Barb Meuers, among others.

Rebecca Hoffman, executive director of House of Hospitality and Village of Hope, said the exhibit demonstrates how homelessness can occur.

"We can link the trauma of war to the eventual outcome of homelessness," Hoffman said. "It's not just about the rent not getting paid. I've never met a homeless family that did not suffer some sort of trauma in their life that eventually had the outcome of homelessness."

Hoffman said there needs to be services and support groups to help veterans manage trauma in their life so it doesn't result in homelessness.

Sen. Olson toured the exhibit and spoke to attendees about the need for veteran services.

"We have now a veteran's clinic, but we'd like to have a veteran's home in the area," Olson said. "There isn't one in drivable distance."

She went on to say, "While I didn't support the decision to eliminate access to health care for low income people, still, it was the end result of our session in the senate at the state level. I have to stand here and tell you how badly I feel about that. I cannot understand how we could balance our budget deficit on the backs of people who are the poorest and sickest in society. And a percentage of them are veterans."

Duane Columbus, a local citizen who served with the United States Army in the Vietnam War, spoke about his experiences working to attain veteran services on reservations in Minnesota.

"We weren't welcome like veterans are today," Columbus said. "I tried to get help from the (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs), but all they did was hand me a big packet of papers and tell me to fill it out. County veteran officers were scared to come onto the reservation back then."

Columbus said he and a group of people worked towards getting service workers on the reservations.

"A lot of the veterans were homeless and a lot of them needed emergency help," Columbus said. "To have service workers who lived on the reservation really helped."

Pat Grundmeier, executive director of Northwest Area Service Collaborative spoke on recognizing homelessness.

"Here in northern Minnesota, homeless is not like it is shown in movies," Grundmeier said. "We have a lot of folks who bunk with friends and go back and forth between family members."

Grundmeier said sometimes veterans are less likely to seek out services because they are often proud by nature and hard to find.

"On a positive side, we're getting a lot better at providing services at the front end for veterans," he said. "We're hoping that is one of the reasons we're not seeing a rise in homeless veterans."

For more information about the HRA of Bemidji, call 444-4522. For more information about the Portraits of Home II, visit