Billy Doyle is a homeless, 59 year-old U.S. Army veteran who needs a cane to stabilize his gait from an ankle injury suffered while serving his country in the early 1970s.
“I’m lost; I need help,” said Doyle, who stays at the nearby Ravens Outreach Center for Homeless Veterans. “I’ve got five pins in my left ankle from when I smashed it while I was in there. Forty some years I’ve been trying to get my records. I want my disability.”
Ricardo Schexnyder, 61, is another Vietnam-era veteran who is homeless. He served as an Army military policeman. He recently applied for a janitorial job but was turned down for it.
“That experience was very traumatic for me because the human resources director for that agency, I felt that he did not respect me for serving my country,” Schexnyder said with a voice full of sadness. “That’s just not right.”
Schexnyder and Doyle were two of the more than 60 homeless veterans, including several women veterans, who attended a “Stand Down” event at the One Stop Homeless Services Center at 153 N. 17th St. on Saturday.
Schexnyder was there looking for a job, housing and educational assistance; Doyle was seeking disability benefits.
Officials and volunteers from about 20 government agencies and nonprofit groups were there to help the veterans with paperwork, counseling, health screenings and other services. Each was offered an Army surplus duffel bag filled with clothing and personal items, as well as a hearty breakfast and lunch and a free haircut.
“We planned for 100 veterans, and there are about 60 here today,” said Randy Nichols, executive director of the Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless, the event’s main sponsor.
Nichols told a crowd in the shelter’s lobby that services and programs through Volunteers of America and other homeless service providers have re-housed 430 veterans’ households and families since November 2013.
“We estimate that we have 50 or 60 to go, and by Veterans Day, November the ninth, we hope to have completed that task,” Nichols said. “Today and every day from now until then, the action is getting veterans housed so we can say that we have done the work we set out to do — to end veteran homelessness.”
Richard Collins, Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs, said they were assisting the vets with claims and advising them of available services. He said he wasn’t surprised there were more than 60 homeless veterans there.
“There is not enough being done to eradicate the problem of homelessness of veterans,” Collins said. “Every year the federal Veterans Administration does a study in January, when homeless veterans will seek shelter when it’s cold, and over the past several years, the count has been about 80,000 nationwide.”
Dennis James, 53, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served from 1985-87, is homeless by choice, he said, and lives in the woods.
“I’m just living — doing what I have to do,” James said. “They are showing us a lot more respect than other people have in the past. I was able to get some things to be able to maintain. I appreciate that.”
Later, as he dug through a VA duffel bag, he said he was grateful for the contents of a poncho, hat, socks, shirts, a plastic canteen, fleece jacket and personal hygiene items.
Christian McDaniel, a 2003-05 Navy veteran and case manager with O’Brien House, a home for people battling addictions, manages a veterans outpatient program. After listening attentively to Army veteran Doyle’s problems and explaining some things to him, Doyle’s face broke into a big smile and he declared, “Thank you! Now I’ve got some hope!”
“Finding them services now is getting tricky especially if they don’t have Veterans Administration services,” McDaniel said. “We’re seeing combat veterans who came back home, they have substance abuse issues, they pop positive on a urine analysis and were ‘dishonorably discharged’ or ‘other than honorably discharged’ so their VA benefits have been taken away. So, now we’re trying to find the appropriate resources to see that they are taken care of.”
Alejandra “Alex” Juan, executive director of the USS KIDD Veterans Memorial and Museum that co-sponsored the event, is an Air Force veteran and has been working with female veterans for about 10 years. Juan said she wasn’t surprised to see several homeless female veterans at Saturday’s event.
She said she’s met female veterans living on the streets who are sexual assault survivors and are struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder as they make the transition back to civilian life.
“All of the same aspects that affect men can affect women,” Juan said. “It’s a blessing to be able to work with these women and be able to get them the resources that they need so they can get to a point where they are ready to move on.”
Over in a corner, Raymond Cosey, of Ray J’s College of Hair, and a student, Marcus Malls, were at barber chairs giving haircuts to homeless veterans.
“We’re giving back, and we should give back,” said Cosey. “These are our soldiers who have dedicated their lives to us, so we should give back to them.”
Something as simple as a haircut can make a homeless veteran feel much better about themselves, Juan said, and starting June 22, they will be offering free haircuts on an ongoing basis.
East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Kip Holden, who attended Saturday’s event, repeated the vow he made on Memorial Day to end homelessness in the parish.
For information or to refer a veteran for assistance, call One Stop Homeless Services Center at (225) 388-5800. O’Brien House offers counseling by calling (225) 344-6345.