Once homeless, Vietnam Veteran helps others get off the streetby Tim Post, Minnesota Public Radio
A 2004 Wilder Center survey estimated there are as many as 2,200 homeless vets in Minnesota -- that's 15 percent of the state's adult homeless population. One social worker in St. Cloud has made it his mission to help homeless vets get off the streets.
St. Cloud, Minn. — Stephen Eisenreich's wire-rimmed glasses, along with his graying hair and mustache, give the 58-year old a professional look from the neck up. But there's something decidedly everyman about the black leather jacket and blue jeans he wears on this chilly morning.
As the sun peeks over the industrial horizon of St. Cloud's east side, Eisenreich, a social worker at the St. Cloud Veterans Administration, is on the lookout for homeless veterans.
Eisenreich catches up with a man in the Salvation Army shelter's parking lot who talks fast and moves fast. His gray shoulder-length hair is frizzy, his eyes have a wild look. He gestures in a grand manner, and he sounds delusional. The man says he's an Air Force vet and received psychiatric treatment at the VA.
Eisenreich listens closely, performing an on-the-street assessment of the man's physical and mental well-being. After about five minutes, the man is off, walking backwards down the sidewalk.
Eisenreich heads into the shelter and says he'll have to investigate the man's history later.
"It's my gut feeling that he's probably schizophrenic. And he is pretty hypo-manic this morning, he's all the way alive. But we'll check on that. I'll see what else I have for veterans here," Eisenreich said.
The shelter is a stuffy space. There are a dozen or so people -- men, women and a few children -- packing up their belongings. After some breakfast, most everyone here is required to leave for the day.
Eisenreich soon locates another vet, a man who served in the Army in the late 1980s. This isn't the first time they've talked. Eisenreich strongly encourages him to go to the VA and get help for hearing loss and depression. But he doesn't force the issue.
"I'm not going to push you, I'm not here to put pressure on anybody. I'm just here to let you know. The services are available...if at some point, things start to fall apart for you, come in," Eisenreich told the man.
Eisenreich's shelter visit is the first stop on what he calls St. Cloud's homeless circuit. He'll spend the next several hours checking other places where people gather. Besides the shelter, he checks the library, the bus depot, under bridges and in parks. Eisenreich is out here at least three days a week, looking for veterans who need help.
"I really believe in this work, and I hope I'm able to do it for a long time," Eisenreich said.
As the St. Cloud VA's homeless services coordinator, Eisenreich has hit the streets in search of homeless vets for the past three years. He feels the VA is obligated to reach out to vets, because quite often they don't search out help on their own.
"They just don't think they deserve anything, so they don't ask," said Eisenreich. "People stop asking after a while, and that's a tragedy, but I understand how that happens."
There's a debate in the mental health community over the problem of homelessness among vets. On one side, there are those who blame post-traumatic stress disorder. They say some vets use drugs and alcohol to cope with their problems, making it hard to hold a job and have healthy relationships.
On the other side is the VA, which draws no connection between homelessness and military service. The VA says research shows family background and personal characteristics are better indicators of who becomes homeless.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington says there are somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000 homeless veterans in the U.S.
Eisenreich says he's not sure what to think about the debate. He says in reality, homeless vets don't have it any harder than non-veterans who are homeless. But as a veteran of the Vietnam War, he knows something pushed these vets to the street.
"Something happened to them and it scared them. They know something is wrong. But they're afraid if they ask for help, it's going to be even worse than it is, because they may lose their freedom," said Eisenreich.
"I was homeless for three years. My life hasn't always been good as it is now, and maybe one of the things that has allowed me to make a connection with veterans on the street is that I'm able to say to them, 'You know, there was a period in my life when I didn't have a place to live,' and, 'There was a period in my life when I need to go to the VA and ask them to help me'," Eisenreich said.
Eisenreich's story is typical among the people he serves. After growing up near Brainerd, he was drafted 1968, and went to Vietnam. The war changed him, and he didn't know how to deal with it. He came home and got involved in alcohol, drugs and crime, ultimately spending nearly a decade in prison.
In the early '90s, Eisenreich sobered up at the VA, went back to school and got his graduate degree in social work. And now 15 years later, a lifetime to him, he's sharing his story with other homeless vets, to encourage them to get help and get off the street.
Another stop on Eisenreich's morning circuit is a day labor office. Dozens of poor and homeless people come here every day. They're mostly men, and quite often veterans. They're looking for a job to make some quick cash.
Eisenreich runs into a homeless veteran named Tom. He knows him well. Tom served stateside in the Marines in the 1970s. He's been been working lately moving furniture at a local hotel, and is hoping to get something similar this morning.
Tom looks tired. Between sips of coffee from a styrofoam cup, he tells Eisenreich he lost his apartment several months ago. He's staying at a shelter now, but doesn't know what he'll do as the weather warms and the shelter kicks him out.
"I don't have any idea. I don't know anybody in this town, I know a few of the street people, people that are living outside since I've known them, but I don't know where you sleep or where you go," Tom said.
Tom says he thinks if he could get some kind of job training, he could get steady job and afford a place to stay. Eisenreich says he'll do what he can to help.
Back on the streets of St. Cloud, driving in his silver Chevy pickup, Eisenreich says he's tried to offer Tom job training before, but he hasn't taken advantage of it. Eisenreich doesn't get frustrated when occasionally the help he offers isn't used.
Eisenreich meets many homeless veterans who are close to making a better life for themselves. They're close to getting help, to finding a job, and a place to live.
"When you've been homeless, and you've been able to work your way out of it and create a better lifestyle for yourself, and you see people in similar or same situations, you want them to be part of the fabric of society," said Eisenreich. "You want them to be working and productive. You want them to have self-esteem and pride in what they do. You want more for them."
Stephen Eisenreich acknowledges it will be nearly impossible to end homelessness among veterans. But he was able to turn his life around, and wants to use what he's been through to help other vets.