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A day at Jericho Way 

At long last, Little Rock opens a shelter.

click to enlarge Jericho Way image

A woman named Jacquie and a man named Arthur talked to a reporter Monday about how they ended up in Jericho Way, Little Rock's long-in-the-works homeless day shelter that opened in late May. Jacquie, 57, found herself without a home and a job after quitting a part-time job at the University of Arkansas to care for her dying mother. Now, she's glad to have a "cool, dry place." Arthur, 24, said he came to Little Rock to get away from "Chi-rac," which is what he said the gangs call Chicago, and overstayed his welcome at a cousin's house. He's been able to hook up with Washington Barber College, which provides free haircuts to shelter users, at Jericho. Both have been homeless for three months. Neither expects to be homeless forever.

Jericho Way, hard by the railroad tracks at East Thirtieth and Confederate and built as a railroad freight depot in 1929, remains a work in progress. The city purchased the building from the Union Rescue Mission, in August 2011, and has slowly worked to get the building in shape. Thieves set things back when they broke into the basement of the shelter just prior to its opening in May. They yanked copper tubing from the hot water heater, sending a river of 180-degree water into the basement for four hours, ruining donated furniture and the heating units. The thieves were scalded for their trouble, city Homeless Outreach Director Jimmy Pritchett said. Insurance covered the furniture and ruined sheet rock, but the city was still out $40,000.

Pritchett is temporarily looking after the building until a program manager can be hired. (An early deal with the Union Rescue Mission was canceled because of religious restrictions that it would have imposed on employees.) Pritchett expects furniture and computers to be delivered this week for staff offices. Already furnished are offices that other agencies, like Veterans Administration and the Disability Rights Center, can use. There are two caseworkers now.

The numbers coming to Jericho Way have steadily increased since May, Pritchett said. Jacquie and Arthur were among about 40 people at the center Monday morning. They were black and white, men and women, young and old, some sleepy, some calm, some agitated. One woman was wrapped in a comforter. Another had her head on a table. Usually, between 50 and 70 men and women use the shelter; Pritchett said the numbers drop the first week of the month, when Social Security checks come in. After that money is spent, the numbers go up.

Jericho Way operates on a budget of $340,000 — $250,000 from Little Rock, the rest from North Little Rock. (That money used to go to River Cities Ministries, which ran the twin cities' homeless shelter starting in 2007. It still offers dental care and a pharmacy for the homeless.) Grants allowed the purchase of two vans, one seating 13 and the other nine and wheelchair-equipped. They run from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. picking up homeless men and women from their overnight shelters such as Abba House for women, the Salvation Army, the Union Rescue Mission, the Compassion Center, even Riverfront Park. (Their route is now being evaluated to make sure it reaches the most people, Pritchett said.) Clients are returned to their night-time homes starting at 3 p.m. In between, the vans transport the men and women to the Little Rock Community Health Center for mental health needs, the VA's Drop-in Clinic on Main Street, the state Department of Human Services, the state Department of Workforce Services, the Social Security office, the housing authority, the library, River City Ministry for dental and pharmaceutical services and so forth. They are not transported to Riverfront Park or other places to hang out; the vans are used strictly for business, Pritchett said.

The day center also offers two hot meals a day, breakfast and lunch. "Hot meals are very much loved by homeless people," Pritchett said.

Right now, there is only one toilet and one shower, both handicapped accessible. When the money becomes available, the shelter will add more toilets and showers and perhaps a laundry. Linen company Ameripride Services Inc. donated towels, washcloths and bathmats to the shelter.

Mayor Stodola would like to partner with a medical facility to get a clinic in the basement, Pritchett said, but that day is a long way off.

Pritchett is amazed by the various ways people show up at the shelter, which is located many miles from the usual homeless haunts downtown. Some walk over from parts unknown; a Suburban pulled up at 5 a.m. last week and let four or five people out, Pritchett said.

The homeless can't come in high, drunk or have alcohol or weapons in their possession. They must pass through a metal detector, and there are two security guards on duty. They are not searched for drugs. Pritchett said there have been no fights, though the guards have banned a couple of men from the building for being belligerent.

"I've always had a place to live," said Jacquie, 57, who came to the shelter after her mother died. She was once in graduate school to become a social worker and had a part-time job at UAMS, but quit both to take care of her mother in Crossett. Her father has dementia and won't allow anyone to live with him. Two children live out of town; a son who lives in town provides her with a phone. She is divorced. She did not envision being homeless, she said. "My whole life has been taking care" of other people, she said, "and now here I am."

Jacquie will have a part-time job in fall doing intake interviews for a UAMS school nutrition program. She has applied at DHS for a couple of jobs she said, and she had hoped to apply for an Obamacare outreach job, but the program is unfunded. She lives at Abba House, which requires that residents be inside by 4:30 p.m., which means she can't get a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. job yet. "But I'll tell you, there's not a lot of jobs out there."

She's met a lot of veterans at Jericho, Jacquie said, and that saddens her. She also feels bad for people who don't have hobbies. She does: Quilting, and she resumed sewing squares of material together after her interview. (She also brings in scissors for cutting cloth; apparently the guards don't feel she presents a danger.)

Arthur, 24, also has something to do: He carries his barber case around with him and cuts a fellow shelter user's hair. He decided to pursue a certificate from the Washington Barber College after the van came to the shelter and took folks for free haircuts, part of the training for the college's students. "It was a nice, clean, cool environment," he said, and he asked the owner, Arlo Washington, if he could enroll. He's now had two weeks of classes, and has a new pair of shoes, thanks to Washington, who gave him a pair he wasn't wearing. "I love it," Arthur said. "I'm doing great." It wasn't always that way. In Chicago, Arthur said, he'd been in gang wars, been shot at, fallen out of a window.

His tattoos tell of his passion: Music. He says he plays tuba, trombone and electric bass. He learned, he said, in the marching band at Percy L. Julian High in Chicago.

But the barber college, he says, "saved my life."

Pritchett's hope is that all the day shelter will guide more of the homeless into jobs and a permanent home.

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