HOUMA, La. - Irvin Richard Jr. will answer to 'The Shuffler' if you call him that. The cards move through his hands and he rarely looks down, only forward.
Richard, 65, is a staple of Houma's downtown. He is usually seen walking through the area, deck of cards in hand, and will occasionally ask somebody for money.Richard, who served in the U.S. Army from 1972-74, once worked as a welder. However, he hasn't done that for more than 30 years.And until late last month, Richard had a permanent place to stay at night. That changed when his apartment on Gautreaux Street was destroyed in a fire.Firefighters and Richard said frayed extension wire covered by a pile of clothes ignited, and the fire spread.'It got caught up and the radio caught on fire and never stopped burning,' Richard said.Richard lost everything, save for a few pieces of clothes.Houma Police Lt. Bobbie O'Bryan said he was put up at the Sugar Bowl Motel for the night with assistance from Gulf Coast Special Services.After that, the American Red Cross was able to put him in a hotel room at the Plantation Inn for a few days.Now, Richard sleeps at the Bunk House, a homeless shelter in Houma. O'Bryan, who oversees the shelter, said the man has a spot until he finds a new place to live.'Most use our agency as a stepping stone,' O'Bryan said, adding the first few days after a traumatic experience are crucial in laying the foundation of having a place to live and stay.Richard, while he is well-known, does not have a story that makes him out of the ordinary, O'Bryan said. Many people who come through the Bunk House are veterans or once had a good job, he said.Police have said a typical day with Richard involves him asking for money from passersby or drivers. He then uses the money to buy some food or drink and will often take the bus to various places. On Wednesday, for example, Richard said he was heading to Thibodaux.During a conversation with Richard, he will rarely make eye contact. He simply looks forward and will answer any question.He rarely drinks alcohol, he said. He only smokes occasionally, he said.Richard said he used to shuffle dollar bills instead of cards before he was robbed. Then, he said, a police officer gave him the cards and he hasn't stopped using them.Richard said he has no family. His parents and brother passed away several years ago.Even at 65, Richard said he wants to go back to school. He wants to attend Nicholls State University to get a degree in teaching. He went to school in 2005 but failed his coursework, he said.Still, Richard has some income. He receives a check each month for his time in the service, and social-service workers are trying to help him in any way they can.O'Bryan said it is easy to dismiss people like Richard by passing them and thinking they are just the homeless.O'Bryan said he is a good example of community policing in action, helping Richard not bother people and wander around at night.'He's very polite, and people know him as a kind, gentle individual,' O'Bryan said. 'People think it's just a hobo walking the street. We need to come up with a different solution.'Staff Writer Eric Heisig can be reached at 857-2202 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @HeisigHCDC.