On any given day inside the VA Drop-in Day Treatment Center — a single-story cinderblock building at Second and Ringo that serves homeless veterans — about two dozen men cram around a mammoth table, filling a tiny activities room. Knees bump, and those with early spring colds duck their heads, respectfully coughing into their hands. Plastic dividers separate the room from reception, but they do nothing to block the din.
The VA center desperately needs more space. Between the hours of 7:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., 22 social workers, three administrative staffers and 40 to 60 veterans wedge into a tight 3,000 square feet. Doors open partially before slamming into desks in closet-sized offices that serve multiple employees. VA workers often see individual clients in the same room, making confidentiality a long-abandoned concept. Meals are served in three shifts, supplies are stored off-site and expanded service plans, such as a primary care medical clinic, have been indefinitely shelved.
The VA center moved into its current building in 1996, with a staff of seven. Less than a decade later, VA officials were actively scouring the city's abandoned properties for a bigger space. In 2007 they came close to leasing the former Roy Rogers Auto Parts building across from the Salvation Army shelter on Markham Street. But the Capitol Zoning Commission, under pressure from Mayor Mark Stodola and the Downtown Neighborhood Partnership, opposed the move. In a letter to the Capitol Zoning Commission dated Oct. 24, 2007, Stodola wrote: "As you know, there is a renewed emphasis on residential and commercial development in this area, and I believe this facility will hamper continued investment along this corridor ... I hope the commission will reject this [zoning] application."
Last July the VA advertised its building search in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and in November signed a lease with Oklahoma-based SI Property Investments on the former Jeep dealership. It seemed perfect — the center fit the mixed-used zoning, it was located near center clientele and with nearly 10,000 square feet available, it offered space to spare. A downtown resident learned of the move from VA sources on Dec. 15 and posted the news on the Downtown Neighborhood Association (DNA) message board. Mayor Stodola found out two weeks later, from a DNA meeting agenda. In a Jan. 7 Associated Press article, he called the planned move "foolish," citing the harm it could do to efforts to revive Main Street. Second District Congressman Tim Griffin, normally a flag-waver, criticized the VA's purchase of the property without prior notification of downtown residents. Then, at a Jan. 12 DNA meeting, attended by at least 100 people, the DNA board voted, 6 to 5, to oppose the relocation. Businesses feared the center's homeless clients would loiter after the early afternoon closing time.
In early February, the city hastily drafted a conditional use permit ordinance that may thwart the relocation altogether. If the VA were forced to break the lease, the government would be required to pay $945,000 plus legal fees to the property owner. The ordinance, which has yet to be voted on by the city board, would subject certain intended uses to public hearings, even if they fall within acceptable zoning. The stalled vote is one of several city tactics to delay the building permit, applied for five weeks ago by property owner SI Property Investments. SI was told the permit would be issued in 10 days, said Debby Meece, a VA spokesperson.
The center's clients are confused and dismayed by the resistance. In the activity room, they discussed the matter before a weekly writing class. "I don't believe it's the residents. I believe it's someone with money that's just using the residents as an excuse. It's not like it's the safest place in Little Rock, anyway," said one vet, a trim man in a plaid shirt, just as Jennifer Miller, the young jeans and fleece-clad instructor slipped into the room.
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