Homeless veterans service Baltimore's new bike-share program

Baltimore's $2.36 million bike-share program is being serviced by an unlikely population: homeless veterans.

Around the Baltimore Station in Sharp-Leadenhall, Ivan Baylor is known as "Bike Man."

The 59-year-old Army veteran from Dundalk lives at the converted firehouse in South Baltimore that serves as a drug-addiction treatment center for homeless men, many of them veterans.

The nickname comes from his job: Baylor is one of the 10 homeless vets at the Station who were hired by Baltimore-based Corps Logistics, a veteran-owned firm, to install the city's bike-share system that launched two weeks ago. He's one of four who have been kept on full-time to maintain the bicycles.

"It's beautiful. It's really special for me, to go out and do something constructive all day," he said. "I know the next day I have something positive to do. I've got a job."

Each day, Baylor drives a van around to the program's initial 20 stations to make sure all the bikes work, switch out any that don't, and add or subtract bikes to make sure none of the stations have too many or too few.

During the system's roll-out, he's following a pickup truck driven by Corps Logistics owner Jim Duffney, an Air Force veteran and a member of the New Jersey Air National Guard, with a trailer carrying more bikes and a power generator. Duffney said he's grooming Baylor to take the lead on the rounds and eventually work with an apprentice of his own. Other vets work in the program's call center.

"That's the goal," Duffney said. "You empower them."

When Baylor returned in 1984 from his second tour overseas in the Army, the heavy machinery specialist was traumatized.

He'd never been much of a drinker before, but he found himself waking up regularly stinking of the gin he drank to ward off his loneliness and the gruesome memory of seeing a man hit by a speeding tank in South Korea.

After an honorable discharge, Baylor got a job with Baltimore City as a heavy equipment operator, driving bulldozers, dump trucks, forklifts and other construction vehicles. But he was fired in 2008, when he was caught sipping booze on the job.

Baylor spent the next seven years in a downward spiral. He'd put on a shirt and tie for a job interview, then pick up a bottle of liquor when he was rejected. In March 2015, he lost his house in Towson and began living with his mother and his sister.

Baylor's drinking suppressed his appetite, and he dwindled to a gaunt 110 pounds. His memory began to fail, too. His mother would send him to the store to buy groceries; he'd return hours later, having forgotten the original errand.

Eventually he reached a breaking point. He went to the Veterans Affairs office and asked to be placed into a rehabilitation program.

On June 6, 2015, he walked through the door of Baltimore Station.

"June 5 was my last drink," he said.

Duffney's company, with its military-style culture, is a natural fit for the homeless veterans who are doing well at the treatment center, said Baltimore Station executive director John Friedel.

"Our men relate to him well," he said. "For the veterans, working with a veteran-owned business, where the people understand the path and journey these people have been on, is helpful."

Working for Corps Logistics provides both autonomy and a familiar support system for the men working to re-enter society from treatment, Friedel said.

"They transition through our network and our brotherhood to another one that's safe and understanding," he said.

The work of repairing bicycles also aligns well with the technical skills veterans often have picked up during their time in the military, Friedel said.

"Being able to see something from inception to completion, task-oriented work, is something that resonated with a lot of guys," he said.

More than a few veterans struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries and other mental health problems and drug addiction as they move into civilian life and try to find a job, said Jeffrey Kendrick, executive director for the Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training.

"There can be sexual trauma, physical abuse, mental abuse — all sorts of barriers that can prevent a person from being a stable employee," he said.

Kendrick commended Corps Logistics for recognizing the homeless veterans' potential.

"Every veteran that comes through your door has a skill," he said.

Jonathan Schettino, a psychologist who treats veterans at his private practice in Mount Vernon, said those with mental illness or drug addiction can have an incredibly difficult time mustering the effort and organization to get and maintain a steady job.

Cognitive behavioral therapy, medication and a variety of other treatments can help, he said.

"It's about getting veterans connected those resources so they can begin to work on those mental health problems that a lot of them face at disproportionate rates, unfortunately," Schettino said.

Before Duffney and Baylor make their daily rounds, Duffney checks his Baltimore Bike Share mobile app, which shows how many bikes are at each station at any given time. He notes which ones are most imbalanced; one of their main jobs is to redistribute the bikes so there are enough bicycles and open spaces at each station.

One morning this week, they loaded the bikes into their vehicles from the Corps Logistics lot on Waterview Avenue in Westport, and headed for the closest station, at the McHenry Row shopping center.

They checked each bike, unlocking it from the station and monitoring the battery life of the onboard GPS systems and "Pedelec" electric-assisted pedals. Most stations will be hooked up to the city's power grid by the end of the week, Duffney said, so they expect to see fewer dead batteries.

Duffney sees himself and Baylor as ambassadors for the bike-share program, explaining it to curious passers-by, showing them how to sign up and giving them free trial rides on the new bikes.

They struck up a conversation with Alex Kukich, 30, of Locust Point as he passed by at McHenry Row. A minute later, Kukich was on one of the Pedelec bikes, riding it around the block and up through a parking garage to try it out.

"It's awesome," said Kukich, who works at the video advertising firm Videology. "It's fun, it's clean, it's different."

When he returned, Duffney showed him how to sign up for a bike-share membership. Duffney is confident most people who try the bikes once will use them again.

"We need to sell the product," he said. "Once you ride the bike, you're golden."

The bike-share program is funded by a $2.36 million city contract with Canadian bicycle manufacturer Bewegen Technologies. Corps Logistics serves as a subcontractor that provides assembly and maintenance services. By the spring, the number of bicycles in the growing system is expected to double to 500. As a result, Duffney said, he expects to increase employment to about 12 to 15 veterans.

He also expects the operation to continue to grow as Bewegen launches additional bike-share programs in Richmond and Norfolk, Va., which Corps Logistics will service from Baltimore.

Baylor smiles with pride when he sees the bike stations around the city. He laughs when the other men at the Station holler at him: "What up, Bike Man?"

"I'm back working," he said. "It's a real good feeling."

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cmcampbell6

This article was shared on Nextdoor. Visit The Sun’s Nextdoor profile page for top stories and news on Baltimore City.

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
39°