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It’s a fairly safe bet to say that no one in the downtown business community was sad to see the Our House homeless shelter finally leave Main Street the weekend before Christmas.
The move had been a very long time coming, and business people interested in the area — namely financier Warren Stephens, who’s been quietly buying property along Main — viewed the shelter as an obstacle to redeveloping the street into an arts district. (Stephens now owns the old Our House building, but hasn’t announced what his plans for it are now that the Arkansas Repertory Theatre lost out on a grant that would have paid for a new theater complex on the site.)
But the folks at Our House didn’t exactly have to look very far to see the bright side of moving. The new shelter, built just east of the old V.A. hospital on Roosevelt Road, is larger, brand-new, and right next to Our House’s offices and a second “transitional” shelter that houses families. Plus, it has windows. And open space for kids to run around, or for adults just to get some fresh air. The old Main Street shelter had neither.
“It’s not just that it wasn’t good for Main Street businesses — it wasn’t a home,” said Georgia Mjartan, Our House’s new executive director. “You weren’t in a residential area.”
Mjartan, on the job for three months now, is a story unto herself. Born Georgia Miller — her father is Peter Miller, he of the talking car and the impossibly wide smile in ads for his law practice — she is just 25, and walked away from a promising consulting career to work for Our House after the previous executive director was let go last summer.
“When she heard about what happened she asked for the job,” said Barry McDaniel, the outgoing president of Our House’s board of directors. “We didn’t go to her with hat in hand — she wanted the job.”
Mjartan grew up in downtown Little Rock, and when it came time to pick a college, she decided to stay: UALR’s Donaghey Scholars program was just too good to pass up, she said. The program selects about 20 students per year — several of them from overseas — who move together through a series of core classes over their four years at the university. She majored in English and political science, with an eye toward going into some kind of policy work after college. One of her classmates was Dominik Mjartan, a Slovakian, whom she married right after they both graduated in 2002.
After graduation came a prestigious Mitchell Scholarship, which provides for a year’s study at any university in Ireland or Northern Ireland, plus money to travel around Europe. She earned a master’s degree in political communication and public affairs at the University of Ulster, a school in a town near Belfast that’s 99.97 percent Protestant. And while the degree program prepared her to work as a lobbyist or policy maker, she said, the most valuable lesson was one she learned outside the classroom, doing independent research. Her topic was why, when given a choice, people choose to live in either a segregated or integrated environment. Her subjects were people who’d recently moved into public housing — and who were able to choose projects that housed either solely Protestants or solely Catholics, or a mix. The lesson came in learning how to talk to them.
“Having to clear myself of any assumptions I had and just listen — to treat each person as someone of value, someone I needed,” she said. “I use it every day — that ability to listen and just value what someone believes, even if you disagree with it.”
But Mjartan said she was ready to come home when the year was up, and didn’t even consider looking for a job away from Little Rock.
“This is where I grew up. This is my community,” she said. “The changes I’ve seen in the last 10 years are exciting and inspiring. There’s also a lot to be done here, and I can see where I fit into a lot of that.”
Helping others runs in Mjartan’s family: a great-uncle was a union organizer, her mother is a psychotherapist, and her father, Mjartan said, became a lawyer because he wanted to help people who’d been discriminated against or treated unjustly.
So back in Little Rock, Mjartan went to work for consultant Ken Hubble, who helps non-profits develop strategic plans. In late 2004, she was asked to join the Our House board of directors, and one of the first events she attended was the groundbreaking for the new shelter.
“I went up to Barry and said to him, ‘I’m not really that connected’ — what I meant was I don’t have much money — ‘but what can I do to help?’ ”
Around the same time, Our House founder Joe Flaherty, the shelter’s only executive director in its 16-year history, retired. The board wasn’t happy with the man they hired to replace him, and Mjartan got more involved with the operations of the shelter in the course of trying to make sure programs were running like they should. He resigned in July, and Mjartan was one of the first people board member Bob Holloway called to tell. He then told her he thought she’d be great for the job.
“I’d never thought about that,” she said. “I thought I was too young to be an executive director. So I said ‘Uhhhh…’ and just continued the conversation like I didn’t hear it.”
But they talked more about it later, and Mjartan decided fairly quickly that she agreed with Holloway. She approached McDaniel and other board members about it, and by the next board meeting she was the new executive director.
It meant a pretty significant pay cut, but Mjartan said she’s lucky to have a husband with an MBA to ease the transition.
It also meant taking on an enormous amount of responsibility before she necessarily had the experience and wisdom she needed.
“She’s already handled some new experiences for her,” said Beth Coulson, the Our House board member who originally recruited Mjartan to be on the board. “But she knows to ask for help — she knows to go to wiser people to get the answer. Then she handles it herself.”
For instance, Mjartan said she got a crash course in construction planning from Pat Hampel, a designer of industrial kitchens who drew up plans for the new shelter’s food preparation area, then called in a host of favors to get it outfitted. (Most of the equipment came from the Capital Hotel, which is going through an extensive renovation.) He showed her how to read blueprints, how to tell what should be where and why it mattered.
He also gave her some advice on being a good manager — how to delegate authority, and make sure other people are doing their jobs without micromanaging them — and on navigating through the maze of permits and inspections required to open the shelter.
“You don’t know stuff like this at 25, no matter how many degrees you have,” Hampel said.
The new shelter has dorm-style housing for up to 80 people, up from about 50 at the Main Street facility. The men, women and families who live there are “situationally homeless” — people who are struggling financially but don’t have substance abuse or mental health problems. They’re required to work or attend classes — Our House provides GED, literacy and computer training, as well as child care, at the Roosevelt Road campus — and can live in the shelter for up to two years while they save money and, in some cases, learn the life skills necessary to survive when they leave.
“We can become an intervention step to prevent people from becoming potentially chronically homeless,” McDaniel said. “You slide deep enough, it’s real hard sometimes to get back on your feet.”
As for Mjartan, she knows she probably could have gone anywhere and done just about anything she wanted, given her intelligence and credentials. But, she reasons, who would be left do to the work that needs doing here if everyone who wanted to change the world ran off to New York or Los Angeles to do it?
Plus, she had friends to prove wrong.
When Mjartan graduated from UALR, she was interviewed for a newspaper story, and quoted as saying she was going to come back to the state after her year in Northern Ireland. Her friends just rolled their eyes.
“I just want to say, thank you very much — I did come back to Arkansas.”
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