Ed Smith came in from the cold last week. Along with Puffy.

How an 83-year-old veteran of World War II ended up living in a broken-down motor home in a Minneapolis parking lot during one of the coldest winters in years is a story with many strands: Like every homeless person's life, there could have been -- and should have been -- a better outcome.

But getting Ed Smith off the street, along with his little Pomeranian mix therapy dog, Puffy, was easy. Someone just had to ask him to come inside.

There is a lesson here.

But first: How a member of the Greatest Generation became one of the Coldest.

Smith will be 84 in August. He was born in Elbow Lake, Minn., and suffered through a traumatic childhood of abandonment, orphanages and boarding schools.

At 17, he left his private battles behind to enlist in the Navy, getting assigned to a destroyer named the USS Burns. The Burns and Smith, a lookout on the ship's bridge, fought a dozen battles in the Pacific.

Smith came through physically unscathed but emotionally wounded.

It took nearly a half-century to have his problems diagnosed and treated. The Veterans Administration declared him 50-percent disabled in 1996, after Smith asked Sen. Paul Wellstone for help (Smith visits Wellstone's grave every year to pay respects).

His diagnosis includes depression, schizophrenia, paranoia and post-traumatic stress disorder. A lot of it boils down to survivor's guilt, and childhood trauma.

"They think stuff doesn't bother a 19-year-old," Smith wrote the VA, recounting a 1944 naval battle in which the Burns sank a Japanese ship and rescued a handful of survivors.

"But that's something I never forgot. And it gets worse as I get older."

His letter continued, "I always have a deep feeling of rage that something bad is going to happen, that I've done something wrong and should be punished for it. Yet I don't know what I've done. It's been a miserable 50 years. I'll be glad when it's done. Maybe then I'll have some peace."

Smith worked many jobs over the years, including as a truck driver, a furniture mover and a bricklayer. A few years back, he had prostate cancer, and had his bladder removed, leaving him with an ostomy bag. But he was doing well, living frugally in a subsidized senior home, drawing $1,200 a month in disability and Social Security, putting a few hundred each month in savings.

Then he got mad. And things went off the track.

RV cost him his savings

Smith left the senior citizen place (there were too many squabbles with younger residents) and moved into a trailer park in Bloomington. There, he saw a motor home for sale, and decided to buy it and drive to Delaware, where a nephew lives. (Smith was married for eight years "to a Norwegian" but "hated every minute" and has no children). With a motor home, he thought, he and Puffy could live on their own.

The 20-year-old RV cost $5,500, cleaned out Smith's savings, and turned out to be a lemon. The heat didn't work, nor did the appliances or the bathroom.

With gas at $3 a gallon, winter coming on and no other place to live, Smith ran out of time, and ideas. In October, he moved the RV to a Minneapolis parking lot on the north edge of downtown, paying $30 a month for rent.

That's where he lived until last Monday, using propane heaters for warmth, hanging blankets up to section off his living quarters, sharing frozen TV dinners of macaroni and hamburger with Puffy.

"I like them and so does Puffy," Smith says. "They only cost $1 -- cheaper than dog food!"

But the winter wore on, Smith began to run out of money, and he grew tired of taking the bus every day to Wal-Mart to buy propane, which he burned at the rate of about $50 a week. And he still got frostbite on his hands.

"I had a run of bad luck," he says. "The winter got too much. It was so cold. That's why I'm in this situation."

The overnight temperature dropped to 14 below zero when, last Monday, Brandon Sanford, an outreach worker for St. Stephen's Human Services, met Smith at a Catholic Charities feeding program. Smith was ready to try something warmer. When Sanford asked Smith if he'd like to see the shelter at St. Stephen's, and that Puffy could come, too, he agreed.

No barking, no marking

"If he doesn't bark and he doesn't 'mark,' Puffy can stay," said Monica Nilsson, director of outreach at St. Stephen's.

Puffy passed his test, and Smith slept comfortably on a floor mat. But he didn't understand that he could stay more than one night, so he went back to his motor home on Tuesday. On Wednesday, Nilsson found Smith and explained that he could stay longer.

"I didn't think I could find a place that would let me have Puffy," Smith says. "I love that dog. Just look at him. Isn't he the sweetest? I used to get panic attacks, but I don't now. I have Puffy."

As Hennepin County proceeds on a 10-year plan to end homelessness, one of the biggest needs is for a coordinated outreach effort to find the homeless and help move them off the streets. All Brandon Sanford did was talk to Ed Smith. And find a World War II veteran who was homeless because he just wanted to live with his dog.

'They are at risk'

"People dismiss Ed's kind of situation, as if they think people like Ed want to live that way," Nilsson said. "But people like Ed have mental health issues that hold them back, and keep them from moving forward. They aren't costing anybody anything. But they are at risk. And they just need a little help. They just need someone to spend a little time with them."

This coming Thursday, the League of Women Voters will hold a homelessness forum at Temple Israel in Minneapolis, hoping to find volunteers to work with government and social agencies to find the Ed Smiths on the streets, and move them toward warmth and safety.

The forum is at 7 p.m. at 2324 Emerson Av. S. For information, call Monica Nilsson at 612-481-9501.

As for U.S. Navy veteran Edward J. Smith, he hopes to take Puffy and his World War II medals off the street and into a new senior citizen complex in north Minneapolis before long. He will be taking his dignity, too.

"I don't know why God was keeping me alive," he says. "Maybe this was it."

Nick Coleman • ncoleman@startribune.com