[Hpn] MADISON TOWNSHIP, MI - Homeless Vet leaves makeshift abode for veterans' home

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Mon, 10 Nov 2003 17:16:41 -0500


Homeless Vet leaves makeshift abode for veterans' home

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By AP JENNIFER BURD - The Daily Telegram - November 10, 2003

MADISON TOWNSHIP, MI -- Homeless U.S. Air Force veteran Steve
North sat outside in his orange "easy chair" Thursday morning
watching the sun rise and listening to the sounds of birds.

He said relaxing in the soft chair before and after a long day of
walking was the thing he'd miss most about the campsite in the
wooded area of Madison Township he's called home for the past
three years.

Then, without so much as a glance behind him, he walked away from
the decrepit chair and the jumbled remains of his camp. With just
a few bags and the clothes on his back, he caught a ride to a
whole new life.

That morning, North, 47, followed through with a decision to go
to the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans.

There, he will have to get used to a few things he's gone without
for years: a warm place to live year-round, a solid bed, medical
care and a wide array of social opportunities.

Chris Miller, the deputy director of the Community Action Agency
of Lenawee County, said North's decision to go to the home is a
victory for the Lenawee community, as well as for North.

Miller said that "literally hundreds of hours have gone into
trying to help him by a whole range of local agencies, and that's
how intractable some of these cases (of homelessness) are."

He said that after Michigan Works! veterans employee
representative Warren Vassar told members of the Basic Needs Task
Force recently that the arrangements were being made for North
and Alan Kruger, another homeless veteran, to go to the home,
"everybody just cheered."

Many in the Adrian area are likely to have at least had a visual
acquaintance with North, an Adrian native. He was easy to spot
with his slow, shuffling gate and layers of mismatched
clothing.

North said he often was stopped by strangers who gave him money
or food. Now family members and friends from The Daily Bread of
Lenawee food kitchen in Adrian, where North was a regular, say
they will miss him.

"He'd do anything for you," said Shirley Wright, a regular
customer at The Daily Bread. "Usually when we come up here we
pass him, and we didn't pass him today and that seemed strange.
He'll be missed around here."

"I just hope (the home) gets him back to where he used to be,"
said North's aunt, Adrian resident Shirley Olinger. "He kind of
went downhill after his mother died" in 1995.

"I like him so much," said Daily Bread volunteer Ed Hawke. "But I
think (going to the home) is the best thing for him, but I think
it's a big adjustment, too."

The 755-bed Grand Rapids Home for Veterans in northeast Grand
Rapids offers varying levels of care that include encouragement
for members to function as independently as possible.

The home employs social workers, nurses and physicians, and has
dental services, specialty clinics, pastoral care and recreation
opportunities such as organized games, art classes, and shopping
and sporting trips.

Operated by the Michigan Department of Military and Veterans
Affairs, the home has a long history.

It was established in 1886 as the Michigan Soldiers' Home for
Civil War veterans. The facility, which houses both men and
women, has grown substantially since then, and currently has
1,400 volunteers in addition to staff.

Residents at the home must be Michigan residents or a Michigan
veteran and have served honorably for at least 90 days or have
been honorably discharged prior to 90 days due to a service
related disability.

North was taken to the facility in a van driven by Vassar who has
known North since 1995 and has worked tirelessly to help him
improve his quality of life.

North said he has lived in the woods on and off for the past
seven years. Previous attempts to help North qualify for
work-training and disability programs failed, partly because the
scope of his health problems wasn't fully recognized.

In addition to chronic alcoholism, North suffers from arthritis
and respiratory problems. With the limited choices available to
him and a stated desire to continue drinking, North, until now,
chose to survive on his own.

But he said he was ready to get out of the woods and the cold.

And after the two-and-a-half-hour drive from Adrian, when he
finally stood before his new home, North looked around and
blinked back tears but had few words.

"It's a pretty big place," he said.

North was taken immediately to the dining room for a hot meal.
Then it was off to the admissions office to complete some
paperwork.

He was then shown to his room which he will share with three
others. Each tenant has a bed, dresser and hospital-style curtain
that he can pull around the bed for privacy.

Social worker Dwight Ferguson was soon on the scene, and said
that North would need a shower right away -- something North
admitted he has gone without for at least a year.

Ferguson said North may have to be moved to a nursing unit
because of his alcohol dependency. There, he will receive help
with the detoxification process.

While eating a meal at The Daily Bread before his departure,
North said one reason the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans appealed
to him was the availability of limited quantities of beer on
site.

"He can't do that here -- he may choose the beer over the food."
Ferguson said, adding that a doctor will make the final
determination on how to address North's alcoholism. Health
permitting, some residents are allowed to purchase a limited
number of beers on the premises, Ferguson said.

He also said that North's case was somewhat unique in that a
veteran with the kinds of health problems North exhibits
typically is seen at a Veterans Administration hospital before
coming to the home.

But because North served less than 18 months in the Air Force, he
does not qualify for VA health benefits, Vassar said.

Ferguson said staff at the Grand Rapids home would investigate
whether North could help pay for his care. For now, with no
source of income, North will receive care free of charge.

Without the many layers of shirts and jackets he normally wore,
North appeared frail and malnourished when he emerged from the
shower dressed in a clean flannel shirt and a pair of pants he'd
been given.

Staff nurse Jan Reed then made sure North understood how to use
the phone system and laundry facilities, and showed him the
lounge rooms on his floor and the facility's chapel, barbershop
and games room -- complete with a pool table, television and
jukebox.

North will receive a stipend of $5 per week, which will be added
to an account in North's name at the bank branch inside the home.
Ferguson said he would limit North's spending to $1 per day while
North goes through the alcohol detoxification program.

North said he thinks he will enjoy being able to talk to a lot of
other veterans at the home.

"Every other homeless person I know is a veteran," North said.

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