As an emergency responder for more than two decades, Phil Laval knew how to handle difficult situations.
But after a recent streak of health problems and a bit of bad luck, Laval faced a challenge that his emergency training couldn't prepare him for. He eventually became one of a growing statistic in St. Croix and Polk counties - a homeless individual.
Laval, 56, worked as a first responder and Emergency Management Technician in Clear Lake and Amery for many years. A year ago, however, he started to develop anxiety and stress-related health issues due in part to his work.
He ended up in the hospital with chest pains and exhaustion. His declining health eventually forced him to quit his job.
"I just couldn't do it any longer," Laval recalled.
His need for health care didn't diminish after he quit being an EMT, but Laval didn't have health insurance and his bank account was dwindling.
"I just couldn't afford to go to the doctor anymore," he said. "I didn't know what to do."
During an appointment with a county nurse, Laval learned that Serenity Home in Balsam Lake and Grace Place in Somerset could offer vouchers to help cover the cost of some of his medication.
When Laval started talking to the Salvation Army staff at Serenity Home, they eventually talked him into staying at the homeless shelter.
"I was living with friends and it wasn't working out," Laval said. "I was running out of money and I felt like I was a burden on people."
Laval reluctantly agreed to stay at Serenity Home for a few days, but he stayed even longer.
"I felt safe, warm and comfortable there," Laval said. "If I need to talk to someone, I could always talk to the staff. And during the night, I was able to get up and eat if I needed to."
Once he had shelter, Laval began working with staff member Lynn Engelbrecht to sort out his dire financial situation. Engelbrecht helped Laval apply for Social Security benefits and sped up the process of receiving the aid. She also assisted with Laval's numerous doctor appointments, his application for pension benefits and his Medicaid application. The Salvation Army staff also negotiated with a local hospital to write off Laval's significant debt.
"There was no way I could physically have done it all on my own," Laval said. "For me it was just overwhelming. If I was on my own, I would have just given up."
Instead, with the Salvation Army's help, Laval was eventually able to get back out on his own. He moved into a rental house with a roommate in early October.
"The Serenity Home was a huge blessing to me," he said. "They really helped me out."
While he's now on his own, Laval said he's far from out of the woods. His medical issues still remain a mystery at times, and he still has a tendency to fall and injure himself at times. But at least now he knows that help is available if he needs it down the road.
"I just never thought this would happen to me," he said. "I still can't believe it. I've learned to never take things for granted."
Duana Bremer, Salvation Army director for St. Croix and Polk counties, said that while Laval's story is heartbreaking, more and more individuals and families are finding themselves in similar circumstances.
"His story is not so unique," she said. "People do the right stuff for a long time, and then stuff just happens."
In 2010, Grace Place in Somerset provided 6,265 shelter nights to homeless families, an increase over previous years. At Serenity Home, 6,504 shelter nights were recorded last year for single occupants. (One shelter night equals one night of shelter per person).
"We're helping more and more families and single people," she said.
As demand for help grows, the Salvation Army is seeking support from more donors in the region. The 10th annual Grace Place Wine Tasting Benefit and Silent Auction is one event that helps fund the area homeless shelters.
The event is set for 6-9:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 19, at Ready Randy's in New Richmond. Tickets are $25 in advance and $30 at the door. Over the past nine years, the event has helped raise $61,000 to support Grace Place and Serenity Home.
For those unable to attend the event, donations can be made to the Salvation Army or by dropping money in the Red Kettles at various locations during the upcoming holiday season.