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Project HART helps F-M's homeless veterans get back on their feet

U.S. Army veteran Dean Birds Bill talks about his time in the service and goal to return to New Town, N.D., this spring to reunite with his family. David Samson / The Forum1 / 4
Heather Brandt is the Centre Inc. program director. David Samson / The Forum2 / 4
Chris Althoff is a case manager at Project HART. David Samson / The Forum3 / 4
Rachel Haag is the program manager for Project HART. David Samson / The Forum4 / 4

FARGO—Dean Birds Bill doesn't say much about his Army career, but the former paratrooper had one main goal.

"We looked out for Americans overseas. That was our job."

Now, professionals at Fargo's Project HART are looking out for him and other homeless veterans with mental health or substance abuse issues as they work toward independence.

The nonprofit program, a project of Centre Inc., launched in 2007 at its facility at 123 15th St. N. Earlier this week, 33 men were living there, getting caught up with appointments, honing their resumes and preparing to get jobs and apartments.

Forty-three men successfully completed the program last year, said Heather Brandt, program director for Centre Inc., a substance abuse treatment center. Some are only there for a few weeks, while others are residents for up to two years.

"It's a lot of trying to get to know the veteran and what's important to them to try and help them reach their goals," she said.

For the first time, the program is participating in this year's Giving Hearts Day on Thursday, Feb. 9, a one-day online fundraising drive. Project HART hopes to raise $8,000 to do more for veterans, such as help furnish new apartments or provide veterans with small incentives to keep up with their daily goals, said Program manager Rachel Haag.

'A good place'

A veteran named Bob, who didn't want his last name used, recently moved back to his home state of North Dakota and immediately became homeless. He stayed at New Life Center in Fargo for a few weeks before transferring to Project HART two weeks ago.

With 22 years of Army and National Guard experience, Bob said he'd like to get a job with the Transportation Security Administration. First, he needs to replace his Social Security card and other documents he lost when his wallet was stolen. He also needs to write a resume, land a job and find an apartment.

It's not luxury living at Project HART, with four bunks in each room and a cafeteria downstairs that serves three meals a day. Still, he said it's been a good fit for his needs.

"This is just a good place to get over that little hump," Bob said.

Birds Bill, too, has largely enjoyed his time at Project HART.

The 62-year-old came here from his hometown of New Town, N.D., in January 2016 for shoulder surgery. He became homeless while recovering when the plumbing backed up and ruined his New Town apartment.

The Army veteran said he was left with few options. In addition to his shoulder injury, he's had multiple surgeries on his right leg for injuries from his paratrooping days, and both of his arms were injured during a construction job, leaving him mostly disabled.

Birds Bill also has seen neurologists and specialists for eight years to deal with speech and balance problems caused by Parkinson's disease.

He's received help in the past year with catching up on student loans, getting to appointments and working toward getting his 100-percent disability classification. He also got help to get through the accidental death of his son last February, and he said he could be done with the program and back home in New Town later this spring..

"I've got my grandkids, and they need a grandpa," Birds Bill said.

Project HART Case Manager Chris Althoff said his job lets him help people who have served their country. He grew up in a military family, and his brother is now in the Army.

"There's times where even we'll see the barriers that are stacked up against some of these guys and you know it's going to be a long road," he said.

Those barriers can include a lack of family support, Haag said, because many haven't talked to their relatives in years.

With the help of Project HART, the Veterans Administration and other agencies in the region that assist former military members, Fargo-Moorhead's homeless veteran population is now at "functional zero," meaning there are no unsheltered veterans here.

It can be stressful work helping men as young as 24 and as old as 80, especially when the staff gets attached to someone who later relapses. Still, Haag said it's the little things that make her job rewarding.

"Sometimes just the tiniest things that I do for them, like offer to drive them somewhere or help them make a phone call or help them fill out an application, they're just so grateful," she said.

Giving Hearts Day

Giving Hearts Day, a one-day online fundraising drive hosted by Dakota Medical Foundation, Impact Foundation and the Alex Stern Family Foundation, has helped North Dakota and western Minnesota charities and nonprofits since it was first held in 2008. The 2017 Giving Hearts Day is Thursday, Feb. 9.

Last year, 37,139 donations to 326 causes raised $8.3 million that funded services and work across the region.

To learn more or to make a donation on Thursday, visit www.givingheartsday.org.

Ryan Johnson

Ryan Johnson has been a Forum reporter since 2012 and previously wrote for the Grand Forks Herald.

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