Seven years ago, the National Coalition for the Homeless named Little Rock the meanest place to be homeless out of 24 cities surveyed, despite the fact that the city's metro-area homeless are served by a host of charities. There are at least seven soup kitchens and anywhere from 450 to 650 emergency beds in eleven shelters. But most soup kitchens are only open at meal time, and shelters don't open till evening. Only the VA Drop-in Day Treatment Center and the municipally funded River City Ministries day shelter in North Little Rock offer consistent daytime services. The VA Center solely serves honorably discharged veterans, which leaves 81 percent of the homeless population with extremely limited options.
The federal government requires HUD (Housing and Urban Development) grants to be monitored by a local coalition. In Little Rock, this group is CATCH (Central Arkansas Team Care for the Homeless), and it takes a homeless census every two years. According to CATCH's data, the city's homeless population is steadily declining, from 1,822 in 2007 to 1,276 in 2011. In January 2011, about 1,276 Central Arkansas residents were considered homeless, although some experts think this represents half of the true population. Of those counted, more than 30 percent struggle with substance abuse or mental illness, 16 percent are chronically homeless (up from eight percent in 2009), and 19 percent are veterans.
In 2007 the cities of North Little Rock and Little Rock jointly awarded River City Ministries, a Church of Christ affiliated nonprofit, a $220,000 to $250,000 annual contract to broaden its day center services while the cities' leaders searched for a place to build a permanent day resource center. The day center was outlined a year earlier, in the "Ten Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness in Central Arkansas," developed by a 42-member working group made up of nonprofit, federal and municipal representatives. Pulaski County, the University of Arkansas and the cities of Little Rock, North Little Rock and Jacksonville were included in this group.
"With the city contract, we've just expanded on what we already offered. We've been able to hire more social workers and provide more services, such as laundry and mail," said Paul Wilkerson, the director of River City.
River City went from serving 70 to 150 clients a day. On a typical day, clients sprawl their arms across tables and spread domino games about a large day room. There's also an industrial kitchen, a primary care clinic, a weekend eye clinic, shower facilities, racks for bag storage and machines for laundry. It's staffed with 10 full time employees, 10 part time employees and at least a dozen long-term volunteers. There are three social workers to help clients who want referrals, but there are no therapy groups or scheduled programs. "It's just a place to hang out," said Wilkerson. "If you can act civil, you're welcome to be here."
The municipal contract initially funded shuttles between River City and various shelters, but about two years in, the service providers reneged. Since the contract was supposed to terminate around the same time, River City didn't seek a new provider. "We kept thinking we were at the end of this, but the cities asked us to stay on. It's taken them awhile to find an alternative," Wilkerson said.
Recently the cities purchased one of Union Rescue Mission's buildings on Confederate Boulevard in southeast Little Rock, and by May 2012, they intend to transform it into a functioning day resource center. But according to Little Rock's Assistant City Manager Bryan Day, the cities are not sure what that entails.
"Our intent is to contract services similar to River City's," he said. "The exact programs will depend on the provider, but we're thinking about medical assistance, counseling, help getting social security benefits, working with the courts to get rid of misdemeanors... ." The city is seeking a transportation provider to bus the day center clients roughly five miles from the cities' downtowns to the new center and has also been in conversation with Open Hands Clinic, a private nonprofit medical facility for the homeless, about moving operations from Martin Luther King Dr. to the Confederate Boulevard building.
In January of 2007, the city of Little Rock hired a homeless coordinator — also part of the 10-Year Plan — but the working group has not met in at least two years. According to Day, the 10-year plan is currently being revised. A housing pilot program and a homeless trust were written in the original plan, to be implemented by 2010. The housing program would evaluate available housing and work with housing authorities on permanently placing people, and the trust would raise and distribute funding for high-performing service providers. Currently, the cities have developed neither.
Thus far, Little Rock has spent $470,000 on the new Day Resource Center, and North Little Rock has committed $216,000. Little Rock expects to spend another $348,000 before the center is complete. For 2012, the city has budgeted $250,000 for homeless services.