Finding homeless vets first step in helping them

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Finding homeless vets first step in helping them
Kate Kompas

ST. CLOUD, MINN. — Stephen Eisenreich spends his days looking for homeless veterans. His work starts at 7:30 a.m., when he stops at the Salvation Army’s emergency shelter to see if anyone there wants to talk with him about Department of Veterans Affairs services.

From there, he heads to Place of Hope’s drop-in center. Then he goes to the public library, and from there he goes anywhere he thinks he can find the homeless, such as stairways or abandoned vehicles.

Eisenreich, himself a Vietnam veteran, is the St. Cloud VA Medical Center’s new homeless outreach coordinator.

The VA has long tried to reach homeless veterans, but Eisenreich’s position is the latest and most visible effort.

The short version of his job description: He looks for homeless veterans and tries to help them get medical care at the veterans hospital.

     

Depending on length and level of service, veterans are entitled to health benefits from VA hospitals and clinics. The VA Medical Center provides medical and psychiatric care.

The long version of his job is this: The search for veterans takes him across St. Cloud several times a day. His cell phone rings constantly, and sometimes he doesn’t know the veterans on the other end who need his help.

Eisenreich also talks with homeless people who aren’t veterans but still need someone to listen. Sometimes he’ll dig for bus tokens in his jacket to hand out.

“You can’t help everybody,” he said. “That’s what you take home at the end of the day.”

Eisenreich tries to help as many people as he can.

Many of St. Cloud’s homeless know each other. Eisenreich asks them about one another to try to keep up. And because that community is tight-knit, Eisenreich makes sure to spend as much time as he can with each person.

No one is sure how many homeless veterans live in St. Cloud. It’s tough to pin down numbers because the community is transient by nature.

A common misconception is that the VA attracts homeless veterans, said Maj. Alan Fones, commanding officer of the St. Cloud Salvation Army.

“When we’ve tracked the number of homeless veterans that come use our shelter facility, the number is right around 40 percent,” Fones said.

Since Eisenreich started last month, he’s met with about 40 veterans, four of whom were not enrolled at the VA Medical Center.

Eisenreich recently picked up a veteran from a local hotel to take him to the VA Medical Center.

The veteran had never used his VA benefits. Eisenreich was able to help him get a mental health evaluation with minimal wait.

It’s moments like that, when the VA staff goes beyond what’s expected to help a patient, that make the job gratifying, Eisenreich said.

“I think Steve Eisenreich has his heart in the right place,” said Elwin Fontaine, a homeless man staying in the St. Cloud area.

Fontaine served in the U.S. Navy from 1958-59. He’s used the VA services for his prostate cancer.

He lost his home in 1996 after he got divorced. Like many veterans, he has struggled with alcoholism. “I’m not proud of that,” he said. “I didn’t wake up one day and ask God to make me an alcoholic.”

Fontaine said he’s tried to stay sober. He hopes in the future he’ll reconnect with his family and get a place of his own.

Eisenreich isn’t alone in his efforts to reach the homeless. He’s part of St. Cloud Homeless Concerns Group, a community coalition. He also works with community leaders, including officials at Stearns County Veterans Services Office.

Stearns County veterans service officer Terry Ferdinandt said he often sees homeless veterans in his office.

“A lot of the guys that we get are basically transients or they are coming out of [chemical-dependency treatment],” Ferdinandt said. “When they are done with their treatment, they are looking for a place to stay. They don’t want to go back to the environment where they came from, and they want to get their act cleaned up.”

Eisenreich’s outreach helps a lot, Ferdinandt said.

To get services, veterans need a Minnesota ID and an honorable discharge. Many veterans carry their discharge papers with them, but the state ID can be a problem, Ferdinandt said.

Homeless veteran Les Glenn lost his wallet recently, so he doesn’t have his Minnesota ID.

Eisenreich meets with him regularly to help him work through the system to get proper identification.

Eisenreich listened last week as Glenn and fellow veteran K.W. Gray vented. He also talked to them about the long-awaited housing complex for veterans that will be built near the VA Medical Center.

Because Eisenreich is a veteran, it “makes it easier for the guys to talk to him,” Fones said. “That makes him rather unique for that position. There’s a need there, and he’s doing what he can to meet it.”

Eisenreich plans to encourage organizations that help homeless veterans to apply for grants. That would give the area more money to work on the problem.

And he’ll continue to look for veterans, to make sure they get the services their country has promised them.

With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there won’t be a shortage of veterans anytime soon. And if statistics hold true, some of them will end up homeless sometime in their lives.

Veterans officials in the Twin Cities already are seeing homeless veterans from the latest Iraq war, Ferdinandt said.

Fones said he would like to see stereotypes about the entire homeless population, not just veterans, dispelled.

Many people are just one paycheck away from being homeless, he said.

“The misconception is that they are the dregs of society,” he said. “The reality is these are people like you and me, and they have just found themselves in circumstances that are beyond their control.”

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