Home base for the homeless

Josephine Lee was homeless and in and out of shelters living on the streets of Mobile, Ala., for 12 years when she landed in Baton Rouge.

In August, she moved into the One Stop Homeless Services Center operated by the Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless. The 34,000-square-foot, $8.4 million facility, which opened Oct. 31, 2011, offers a full range of support services to the homeless including outreach case management, primary medical and pharmacy care, life skills training, employment assistance, mental health screening, HIV/AIDS rapid testing, day center services and legal services.

One Stop averages about 140 clients a day. “They come in for a range of services from showers, mail service, use of a phone, use of a computer, to more specialized services like the services of an attorney and the medical clinic,” said Randy Nichols, executive director of CAAH.

“When I first came here, I had been living in a shelter across the street. Now I have my own apartment,” said Lee, who has suffered two strokes and is partially blind. She lives in one of 36 efficiency apartments for homeless people with disabilities.

“In designing the building, because we wanted to help the homeless with disabilities, we set the rent at $325 a month,” Nichols said. “Someone on a disability income can afford a unit.”

Lee’s apartment has a shower and bathtub, a microwave and a small refrigerator. She says she loves the facility because “all of my doctors are downstairs.” Baton Rouge Primary Care Collaborative operates the medical clinic from 8 a.m. to noon Monday through Thursday. Dr. David Dragon, a local ophthalmologist, goes to the center once a month to see patients.

“I know what it is like to be homeless,” Lee said. “I am so proud of my place.”

Garry Higgins lived on a sidewalk in the neighborhood all last winter but now has one of the efficiency apartments at the facility. “I had thousands of dollars of property, and it’s all gone. I had tools and clothes,” he said. “That’s what happens when you live on the streets.” He says he passes his days in his apartment and says he doesn’t often come down to the first floor, where people drop in to spend the day.

His friend, Ricky Rider, was one of the first three homeless clients to move into the apartments for clients with disabilities. “I was working for a doctor when I fell off a ladder,” Rider said. “Now it’s too painful to walk or sit.”

While Higgins has no family, Rider has a sister in a nursing home on Jefferson Highway. The two men take advantage of food pantries provided by such downtown churches as St. James Episcopal and St. Joseph Cathedral.

Neal Varrette grew up in Baton Rouge, but recently returned from Chicago, where he lived for many years. A self-described “certified chef, substance abuse counselor and martial arts instructor,” Varrette slipped and fell on spilled water when he was cooking at a hotel. He is now working with staff members to find some permanent housing and spends his days at One Stop passing the time with other residents.

For 18-year-old Miguel Floyd, who stays in a drop-in place on Prescott Road, One Stop is a place to “calm my nerves down and meditate,” he said. Floyd dropped out of school because he was making “all zeros,” he said. He now has a job at Piccadilly but comes to the center to sit by himself between shifts. “I don’t use the services,” he said, “but sometimes I ask for stuff.”

Cedric Michael Coleman, who was homeless for 19 years, lives in a group home on Convention Street. He spends three to four hours a day at One Stop to pick up such supplies as deodorant and toothpaste and to shower. “I’m a psyche patient,” he said. “People treat me good here. They watch over you, and if you get sick, they get you to the hospital.”

Thirty member agencies provide services at One Stop. There are extras, too. Artists Billie Bourgeois and Sheryl Southwick teach art classes once a week. Jim Wilcox from the LSU Creative Writing Program teaches a weekly creative writing class. Victoria Robertson leads yoga classes.

Youth groups have done projects on the grounds. “We worked with a Slow Food group to put in a community garden, and First United Methodist sent a work team out to help get it running,” Nichols said. “When they come to work in the garden, homeless clients and residents work with the volunteers.”

Nichols is pleased that the community has embraced the project. “I thought it was an idea that the time was right for,” he said. “I have been gratified but not surprised because the people of Baton Rouge are very kind-hearted and philanthropic. I expected we would have this kind of response”