By Jessie Van Berkel
SARASOTA – Roy Carter had never gotten a manicure before. But as the veteran sat with his fingers dipped in water at Payne Park Auditorium, he thought he could get used to it.
“I could go to sleep,” Carter said quietly, his eyes closing as a cosmetology student rubbed lotion on his hands. “Wow.”
Around him, a dozen students cut and styled hair and gave manicures to other veterans, and to people who are homeless.
The Veterans Stand Down event on Saturday was aimed at providing homeless veterans with not only a manicure and hair cut, but the basics — blankets, boots, duffel bags — as well as connecting them with services and benefits, said Chip Taylor, who runs the military assistance program at Jewish Family & Children’s Services of Sarasota-Manatee.
He estimated about 200 people showed up at the event, open to any veteran and the homeless.
Veterans Stand Downs are held across the nation and have been offered annually in Manatee County for years, but this was the second time Sarasota hosted the event.
It coincided with a difficult time for the city, which is struggling to deal with its large homeless population. City officials and service providers have been searching for ways to house people who sleep on the streets, and address the high number of roadside panhandlers at busy intersections, who frequently hold signs saying “veteran.”
To encourage homeless veterans to attend, Taylor said people who know where homeless camps are in Sarasota and Manatee counties were enlisted to help.
He said he was surprised by the number of homeless veterans in the community.
Many people are not aware of the assistance available, said Mark Moulton, 56. He served in the Army and lives in a halfway house in Bradenton.
For Moulton, an initial payment on his own place — the first and last month’s rent — is too expensive. But Saturday he learned of agencies that could help cover the cost.
He will start calling those groups Monday, he said excitedly as he watched a raffle unfold on the Payne Park Auditorium’s stage.
Bikes were being given to winners, who wheeled them off to calls of, “Speech, speech!” from a group of younger vets.
Meanwhile, people were still coming to get haircuts and manicures in the back of the auditorium.
This year, about 50 men and at least five women got hair cuts, and more than 30 men and women got manicures, said Kareen Lynah, one of the 33 cosmetology students from Manatee Technical Institute who helped at the event. The students, mainly juniors and seniors, were volunteering and training for a SkillsUSA contest.
“Last year we got one barber to come and he about cut hair till his arms fell off,” Taylor said. “When you’re poor, one of the biggest things you don’t do is take care of your looks, take care of yourself.”
Jenny Stakley knows first-hand. She is not a veteran but has been homeless in Sarasota for six months. The last time she got her hair cut was at the Resurrection House, a service center for the homeless in Sarasota. The wait there took most of the day, she said.
On Saturday, a student applied a final coat of quick-dry polish to her nails and Stakley smiled. It’s been too long to remember the last time she had her nails painted. As she headed out of the auditorium, Stakley rubbed her damp hands on stained jeans.
Her bright turquoise finger nails shone and her short, blonde hair was newly cut.