FAIRBANKS — Don Harpole’s clients are military veterans who come to the Fairbanks Rescue Mission in need of shelter and sometimes help with addictions and health problems. His goal is to have them leave within two years with stable housing and income.
Harpole is one of two case managers at the shelter’s F.A.I.T.H. program, which takes a holistic approach to getting veterans on their feet. The program provides housing for the veterans in a separate dormitory from other shelter residents and helps give them access to medical care and jobs training. Vets in the program meet with Harpole or the other counselor at least once a week for an hour.
“I’m not a licensed counselor,” Harpole said, describing his role. “I’m just a good listener.”
The program is open to as many as 25 veterans. Harpole now has nine clients. They include both men and women and range in age from veterans of the Iraq war in their 20s to a World War II veteran who recently found his own place to live and left the program. Harpole is protective of the residents’ privacy. In keeping with a mission policy, he does not tell people who call the mission if someone is staying there. Instead he offers to put a message on a bulletin board in case the person stops by to see it.
Like the military world, the F.A.I.T.H. program is highly structured. Early in the day, vets have a lighter post-military version of physical training. In the winter they walk laps at the Big Dipper. In the summer they go outside, sometimes taking walks at Creamer’s Field. The vets later get job training or help applying to jobs. Some have never had a resume before, Harpole said. Within the mission they often get working experience at the mission’s recycling center or as after-hours mission staff.
Harpole took an unlikely route to becoming a case manager at the mission. Before becoming a veteran case manager he repaired rail cars for the Alaska Railroad Corporation. Six years ago his pastor asked him to become part of the mission’s board of directors
“The more I came here the more I had a heart for the people,” he said. In particular he said he liked how religion was part of the Rescue Mission but not necessarily forced onto people. “One of the first things that grabbed me was seeing a couple of vets reading a Bible not because they had to, but because they wanted to.”
Last year he took the veteran case manager job. He has a connection to the military, serving in the Army in the late 1960s. While he was never sent to Vietnam, he said he was disappointed by how service members from his generation were received back home.
“There was a time where they just didn’t get treated right,” he said.
Now he said both veteran benefits and the way society views veterans have improved. Much of his job, he said, is making sure veterans are able to take advantage of services offered by the military and organizations like Access Alaska, the Alaska Literacy Council and the Vet Center. There’s no public bus that drives onto Fort Wainwright, so part of his routine is driving veterans onto post to get medical care.
“For a lot of the older guys, they’ve been homeless for so long they don’t think they deserve better,” he said. “We try to change that thought process. We want to convince them that they deserve dignity.”