Two years ago, the Veterans Administration's plan to move its Day Treatment Center for homeless veterans to a building at 1000 Main St. caused quite a stir. Downtown residents, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Congressman Tim Griffin and Mayor Mark Stodola protested that the move, from a cramped building on Second Street, had been sprung on them, though the VA had advertised in the newspaper its desire to purchase property to house the center. The newspaper called it "unacceptable" that the VA had bought the property without consulting the community. Griffin asked the VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to suspend the move and seek more input from neighbors and local leaders. Stodola called the idea to place the drop-in clinic across the street from a liquor store in business at 10th and Main was "idiotic," and hurried up an ordinance to require conditional use permits for businesses that address for substance abuse or mental health issues. (As it turned out, the ordinance as drafted did not apply to the VA center.)
The Downtown Neighborhood Association, after a three-hour meeting that verged on ugly as residents expressed their fears of mentally ill vets wandering the neighborhood, loitering in businesses, buying booze and scaring children walking to school, voted not to support the move.
The VA apologized to the mayor for not notifying him personally. Shinseki wrote Griffin that the VA had followed the law and he hoped that communication between the VA and the community would improve. The Day Treatment Center went ahead.
In March 2013, the VA moved in to the spacious, 12,000-square-foot building, a revamped former Jeep dealership that quadrupled the size of the treatment center at 1101 2nd St. In the past year, 2,100 vets, about 600 of them new, have used the center. (Many are repeat clients who need several tries to get back on track, and even those who have found homes still have access to the center's medical and life skills programs.)
Veterans and staff no longer have to share a single bathroom; no longer do vets seeking to get off the streets and into jobs have use of only "one pitiful shower," Dr. Estella L. Morris, director of the treatment center, said. The new center has separate showers and bathrooms for both men and women clients as well as staff. The veterans no longer have to eat their meals in three 20-minute shifts, 12 at a time; now there's one shift, serving breakfast and lunch to up to 28 clients. Now there are rooms for social work staff and the many programs offered the vets, classes the vets must sign up for and attend to be fed and helped to end their life on the streets. Now services that once were offered at three places — 1100 Second St., a 500-square-foot space across the street from 1100, and St. Francis House — are under one roof, and there is still space for more. The building can house a HUD-VASH (Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing) staff that has doubled, thanks to the VA's investment in the "Opening Doors" program to prevent end homelessness by 2015. A staff of 42 includes outreach workers who work with incarcerated veterans, previously not considered homeless and unprepared for the free world.
The Day Treatment Center is open to vets from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and staff shifts run to 7 p.m. to make sure all vets have a place to sleep at night. It runs shuttles to the North Little Rock and Little Rock VA hospitals every 30 minutes for vets with acute needs; the city provides shuttles to and from its Homeless Day Resource Center on Confederate Boulevard and various shelters. A psychiatrist sees vets on Tuesdays; there is an advanced practice nurse at the center weekdays.
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