Watching out for the homeless

Volunteer outreach worker Jerry Fleischaker honored with prestigious McKnight award

After Jerry Fleischaker’s wife died of Alzheimer’s disease, he came across a newspaper article about St. Stephen’s Human Services’ work reaching out to homeless people with mental health issues.

The story inspired him to start volunteering for St. Stephen’s. Now the 79-year-old retired pharmaceutical sales representative volunteers full time for the downtown-based organization.

“My wife died of Alzheimer’s in 2002. I saw the care she needed,” Fleischaker told Monica Nilsson, director of street outreach and community education for St. Stephen’s. “I was haunted by the thought that people might be out there who can’t take care of themselves right now and have no one watching out for them. I want to work full time for you, for free.”

Fleischaker is one of the recipients of the 2010 Virginia McKnight Binger Awards in Human Service. He was recognized with the prestigious honor Aug. 25 at a private ceremony in the city along with five other Minnesota residents who have dedicated themselves to improving peoples’ lives in their community.

“The selfless dedication of these six individuals is inspiring, and provides a model for which all of us can strive,” said McKnight’s board chair Robert Struyk. “During this continued period of economic slow-down and fewer resources, they are able to turn their passion and commitment into real-world results for people in need.”

Nilsson nominated Fleischaker for the award.

“When he is asked to speak on his service, he shares his journey with the humility of someone who thinks he’s nothing special,” she said. “He doesn’t realize that his generosity to St. Stephen’s alone is equal to writing a $50,000 contribution annually. When people ask him why he volunteers, his response is always, ‘what I don’t understand is why everyone isn’t contributing.’”

Fleischaker is one of five people who do outreach work at St. Stephen’s. They go out in pairs four times a week for a four-hour period in areas throughout downtown.

“We meet the people where they are at — under the bridges or out in the wooded areas, or down by the river or signing by the  freeway exits or hanging out on Nicollet Mall.”

They share information about how St. Stephen’s can help them get off the streets.

Besides doing outreach work, they do a lot of advocacy work, helping the people they meet access services and find their way into housing.

“They see us as their one chance to make it,” he said. “That is the stressful part of the whole thing — you realize you’re being looked at as the one person that might be able to get them off the street. You take that on as a responsibility. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.”

St. Stephen’s is one of the organizations involved in Heading Home Hennepin — the City of Minneapolis/Hennepin County 10-year plan to end homelessness in the county by 2016. The state of the economy has made the goal much more challenging than leaders envisioned when the plan was unveiled in 2006.

“Progress is being made, but with these economic times, it’s almost like you’re treading water because there are so many more people becoming homeless,” Fleischaker said.

Besides the economic challenges, most people harbor misconceptions about the homeless, he said.

“Most people look upon them as hobos, tramps or people who are too lazy to work,” he said. “They don’t realize that over 50 percent of them are mentally ill, a large percentage of them are disabled and chemically dependent — there are all kinds of reasons for being homeless. But the basic fact is that they are all human beings and nobody, regardless of their situation, deserves to sleep under a bridge.”

His commitment to his volunteer work has inspired many, Nilsson said.

“Jerry’s confidence that if people are given some help, they can do the rest themselves is a message that he has taught his co-workers,” she said. “And once one client is safely on his own, Jerry is back on the street with his outreach partner, checking the freeway exit, under the bridge or in the IDS Crystal Court for the next person in need.”