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Camp NORA gives homeless veterans a place to put their lives back on track

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By SARA PAGONES | The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. | Published: January 2, 2019

(Tribune News Service) — When he joined the Navy in the late 1980s, Gerard Piper was an 18-year-old who wanted to get an education and learn a trade.

He became an aircraft electrician and was stationed stateside throughout his time in the service. But being away from home for the first time, along with some childhood trauma he carried with him into adulthood, led to alcohol and drug abuse.

It's only now, decades later, that the veteran from Baton Rouge – who spent nights on the streets – is finding a new path. Piper credits Camp NORA, a veterans' shelter near Covington, with helping him overcome the difficulties he encountered after serving in the military.

Camp NORA, run by the nonprofit Ride of the Brotherhood, has been open since May. Just over a dozen veterans have come through its doors, some moving on to jobs and fresh starts, some receiving referrals to mental health and other critically needed services, according to Jeffrey Marshall, chairman of the organization's board of directors.

Piper, 48, came to the shelter in July after he had been incarcerated. After successfully completing the program, he's staying on as house manager, determined to help other veterans like himself.

"I've been incarcerated, I've been homeless. It's not only sympathy. I've been there," he said. And the focus for him isn't only on getting a job. "It's about healing yourself."

Camp NORA, an acronym that stands for No One Rides Alone, is part of a growing push across the U.S. to help homeless veterans. In 2010, the Obama administration set a goal of ending veteran homelessness by 2015. While progress has been made, Marshall and Ed Lewis, a veteran who helped found Camp NORA, said thousands of veterans are still in need of help.

On any given night in St. Tammany and Washington parishes, there are as many as 30 veterans without a home, the two men said.

While shelter is an immediate need, Lewis and Marshall said homelessness is usually the result of other problems, such as addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental health issues.

Some veterans have burned their bridges with family members, Marshall said. Or they may not have had a good family support system in the first place.

Also, "when a veteran gets out of the military, one of the things they lose is the structure," where "they are told what to do, when to sleep, what to wear," Lewis said.

One of the aims of Camp NORA, he said, is to help veterans learn confidence in their ability to make good decisions themselves.

The shelter sits on a 17-acre parcel near Covington that has been a home for single mothers, an orphanage and, at one point, a catfish farm that supplied restaurants all over the metro area. Piper, an avid fisherman, regularly throws out a line into a pond on the property, which is all that remains of the former fish farm.

The rambling house has a deep porch and is shaded by large trees. With 13 bedrooms and seven and a half bathrooms, it has a homey atmosphere rather than an institutional vibe, which Marshall and Lewis see as part of its healing mission.

"It feels like a house. It doesn't feel like a barracks," Lewis said.

Lewis, a Vietnam War veteran and founder of Ride of the Brotherhood, said he struggled with survivors' guilt after his military service, including the loss of two close friends. But it wasn't until Hurricane Katrina that the long-buried trauma of the war came rushing back.

He had ridden out the storm at his house in Lacombe. "I came out of the house, and I knew I needed help," he said. Prior to that experience, Lewis said, he had not taken things like post-traumatic stress disorder seriously.

But Katrina "brought back certain memories – I basically snapped," he said.

In 2012, Lewis, a motorcycle enthusiast, was severely injured during a charity fund-raising ride, spending three months recovering in an Arizona hospital.

"At first they told me I would never walk again," he said. Lying there bedridden, he said, he asked God why he was still alive – the same question that he wrestled with after Vietnam.

The answer that emerged for Lewis was that he had to help other veterans like himself, a mission that led him to Camp NORA.

Ride of the Brotherhood entered into a $635,000 lease-purchase agreement with the property's owner, Agape Ministries, in December 2017. The organization has raised $125,000 of the $200,000 needed for a down payment and has been paying $3,200 a month toward the property.

A $15,000 Cleco grant, administered by the Northshore Community Foundation, enabled the group to replace the heating and air-conditioning system. A church group provided the labor to reroof the kitchen.

Since its opening, referrals have come in to Camp NORA from Department of Veterans Affairs clinics, social workers and family members.

There is structure at Camp NORA, including curfews and a requirement to keep the place spotlessly clean. Bedrooms have an almost military aspect, Lewis said.

The veterans who have come through the facility have been young and old. Some have gotten back on their feet quickly. One man had lost his home but still had a vehicle, and he's gotten a job driving for Uber.

Another had a decent income but had piled on debt and lost his home. Camp NORA volunteers helped him learn better financial decision-making. Getting that part of his life in order helped him to reconnect with family members from whom he had become estranged, Marshall said, and he's now moved to Arizona to be near them.

While the veterans helped so far haven't needed to stay long, Marshall anticipates that most will spend six to 24 months there.

"We're not here to judge," Lewis said. "We appreciate the fact that they served their country."

Piper sees it that way, too. When he first arrived at Camp NORA, Marshall told him to view it as a chance to hit the reset button. That idea has stayed with him as he's thought about what he wants to do with his life and his desire to be a good father and grandfather.

"I look at things differently," he said. "It's built me a circle of support ... to not let small things bother me. Camp NORA was the cocoon."

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