For years, 87-year-old Jerry Fleischaker has walked up to the people the rest of us walk by.
“Hey! There’s Jerry,” homeless men and women would call out in greeting as the wiry great-grandfather with the long gray ponytail made his rounds, offering a blanket, a ride to shelter, or just a friendly smile.
He showed up during snowstorms and heat waves and right after open-heart surgery. He searched under bridges and clambered down icy river embankments. He worked full-time, for years, for no pay, moving through the streets of Minneapolis at a clip that kept co-workers a third his age scrambling to keep up.
A decade ago, this retired pharmaceutical salesman volunteered for the street outreach program at St. Stephen’s Human Services and discovered an uncanny knack for offering people the help they needed, just when they needed it most.
“Some of the best years of my life,” said Fleischaker, who’s about to take a well-earned second retirement.
The people he worked with, and the people he worked for, gathered in the basement of St. Stephen’s Human Services in Minneapolis last week to thank the man who turned volunteer work into a vocation. But the first person to step forward to say “thanks” was Fleischaker himself.
“I’m just grateful. Grateful to have been able to be a part of St. Stephen’s, and be able to go home every night feeling good about myself,” he said. “And to live the rest of my life feeling good about myself.”
He was 77 years old when he started this work. He’d lost Norma, his wife of 52 years, to Alzheimer’s disease, and she was on his mind when he saw a story about St. Stephen’s search for volunteers to help with a new street outreach project.
Norma had Jerry to look out for her. The people he saw huddled on street corners, in a city where the weather can kill you, had no one.
“I thought, ‘Well geez, I could do that. I think I could be helpful out there,’ ” he said.
Rose Plenty Horse was sitting on a freezing sidewalk outside the Nicollet Mall Target store on New Year’s Eve 2009 when Fleischaker walked up to her for the first time, and the next time, and the time after that. Again and again, he came back. When she got in trouble with the law, he was there in the courtroom for every single court appearance. Every time she called him for help, he answered. When she was ready to go into treatment and then into a home of her own, he was there for her too.
“Everybody knows him, everybody talks about him. He’s really well known amongst the Native American community,” she said. “I can depend on him. The times I’m sad, I could text him or talk and he’d always respond. ... He put up with a lot of my mess. I got really attached to him.”
Every few years, Wilder Research surveys Minnesota’s homeless population. The last time it counted, one October night in 2015, it found 9,312 people with no place to call home, including 3,665 in Hennepin County alone. St. Stephen’s estimates it offers on-the-spot assistance to about 330 unsheltered individuals each year.
The job Fleischaker volunteered for isn’t easy, said Joseph Desenclos, former manager of the street outreach program.
“We venture into suffering every day. ... I can’t even count how many people he has helped,” Desenclos said. “We are working in the second-worst housing market in the country, and someone asked me, ‘How do you do it?’ Well, we have Jerry Fleischaker.”
At last week’s retirement party, co-workers, friends and family cut the sheet cakes and traded Jerry stories — the Jerry who swore at the computers and drove like a maniac and was so trusted in the Indian communities that many of his clients were convinced he must be a tribal elder. One man, Desenclos remembered, refused to get into his car for a trip to a detox center unless he admitted that Jerry was Indian. (Jerry is not.)
The joke around the office used to be: “Jerry could be having surgery and be in anesthesia, he’d get a phone call, wake up, house a couple of people, and then go back in to anesthesia,” Desenclos said.
At least, they thought it was a joke. After eight years of almost full-time work on the streets, Fleischaker wound up in the hospital. But not for long.
“I had open-heart surgery and I was out for a few days,” he said. “But I came back. I felt pretty good after, so I still kept coming in.”
He came to the job with no special training, beyond a lifelong interest in civil rights and social justice and a profound respect for the people he worked with, particularly the Indian communities where he spent much of his time.
Monica Nilsson, who was director of community engagement at St. Stephen’s Human Services when Fleischaker joined the program, said he brought something to the job that they can’t teach you at school.
“What he brought was patience, compassion, acceptance,” Nilsson said. “There are people who said, ‘The only people who talk to me either get paid to talk to me or they’re also homeless.’ Jerry was neither of those. People appreciated and respected that.”
If you’d like to be Jerry Fleischaker when you grow up, St. Stephen’s street outreach is always looking for volunteers. You can find more information online at ststephensmpls.org/volunteer. If you want to help your unsheltered neighbors another way, you can shop at an Amazon Smile page for anything from diapers to mosquito repellent; designate St. Stephen’s to get a share of proceeds.
Follow Jennifer on Twitter: @stribrooks