Jerry Fleischaker had made a career selling pharmaceuticals, then was lucky to have some good years in retirement before his wife of 52 years was struck with Alzheimer’s disease.
He spent her last days and months caring for Norma, and when she finally died, Fleischaker found himself alone. He was still in good health and had plenty to give.
So now what?
Fleischaker stumbled on a story about an outreach program for the homeless, and eventually contacted Monica Nilsson at St. Stephen’s Human Services. He told her about caring for his wife. “I saw the care she needed, 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,” he said.
Nilsson oversaw a team of workers who went out into the community to look for homeless people and either try to help them get shelter, or at least give them a blanket to fight off the cold.
“We kind of didn’t know what to do with a 78-year-old man at the time, a former pharmaceutical salesman who was trying to save the world,” said Nilsson. “But some of the assets he had, none of us had. One of those assets was age.”
Fleischaker started slowly, a day or so a week. Then he began accompanying the team out on the streets.
“Because he was older, he could talk to the young men in their twenties and thirties and they would listen to him, and they wouldn’t talk back,” Nilsson said.
After decades in a profession that Fleischaker said turned uninteresting and a bit soul-crushing in the end, “chasing the almighty dollar,” he had found something he loved, something that moved him. But he didn’t want to be a volunteer who showed up and left when he wanted to. So Fleischaker talked Nilsson into giving him a full-time job. With no pay.
Now about to turn 83, Fleischaker is lean and fit. He wears his long hair in a ponytail. Many of his clients are American Indians, and many think he is, too, a misperception he doesn’t try to correct.
So whether it’s 90 degrees outside or 20 below, Fleischaker takes his rotation doing outreach, climbing down river banks to look for homeless camps, scouring Loring Park and bridge underpasses to make sure people have warm coats and gloves.
The end game, however, is to get people from the streets into a permanent home.
“He is living out the values of faith, whatever your faith is,” said Nilsson. “He ends someone’s homelessness every single week, and he’s been doing it for five years, for free.”
The experience working with the homeless, what he calls a “survival culture,” has been a transformation for Fleischaker as well.
‘Somebody cares about me’
“We come along and find people under a bridge or sleeping in their car, and we give them hope,” said Fleischaker. “They say, ‘You don’t know how much it means to me that somebody cares about me.’ ”
The experience of virtually saving someone’s life is rewarding, but Fleischaker sees sadness, too. Last month he brought a blanket to a couple he found sleeping outside. Days later, “they just lay down one night and one of them didn’t wake up,” he said.
Some days Fleischaker walks Nicollet Avenue, looking for people sleeping in alleys or doorways. He drives a van around, handing out hats and blankets, or he checks behind the impound lot.
“My kids were worried about me at first, but I’ve never felt in danger at any time,” said Fleischaker. “St. Stephen’s has a good reputation on the street. People know we are there to help them.”
“If you are doing this work, you have to understand you can never give up on somebody, and you don’t look down on somebody because they are an alcoholic or mentally ill.
“You find out a lot about people,” Fleischaker said. “Some of these people had good jobs and families, and something snapped.”
Some of those clients die on the streets. Some never get off. But the ones who do remember Fleischaker and his colleagues.
One former homeless man, now living in an apartment, still calls Fleischaker every week. When the weather is especially bad, he calls to check on his mentor. “He’ll call me and say, ‘I hope you’re not going on outreach today.’ ”
Asked if his new job is more rewarding that his long, successful career, Fleischaker responded: “Much more. I’ve never been this fulfilled. I just feel that at this point in my life, this is what I should be doing, and what I want to do.”
“I’m just grateful to Monica for giving me this opportunity,” Fleischaker said. “She’s put up with me pushing and pushing to do outreach, and I’m forever indebted to her for it. How many people can go home at night on a day when they’ve changed somebody’s life?”