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JanieEvins 
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Re: “Hot Springs feuding over homeless, duck parking

Max:
Thank you for the coverage to highlight the need to provide a shelter for homeless women and children in Hot Springs. I wanted to provide you with a bit more informationand clarify some of the misconceptions about our project.

Our Safe Haven Shelter for Women and Children Board of Directors (15 very passionate and committed volunteers) worked many months searching for a suitable facility for a homeless shelter for women and children. When Mr. Morton indicated that he would donate the 24,000 square foot vacated nursing home to us on Woodfin, we thought our search was over. As anyone who has ever visited a nursing home would know, its layout is perfect for shelter purposes. It has bedrooms with attached restrooms, a fully equipped commercial kitchen, office space, storage space, laundry facilities and courtyards.

However, the neighbors came out loud and hard, citing too much traffic (the majority of the homeless we would serve do not have vehicles, much less the gas to run up and down the street), too many abusive boyfriends and husbands searching for the women (remember, we plan to shelter homeless women---there is already a secure facility for the abused and battered women), too many drug addicts (let me say again that we plan to shelter homeless women and children—there is already a secure facility for the drug addicted and alcoholic women) and the fact that the facility had mold. I assure you that many homes and large buildings in Arkansas have mold. The Health Department would never let us open our doors unless the facility was suitable for women and children. The neighbors also did not want children making noise. The children’s playground is entirely self-enclosed in an interior courtyard. We would never have allowed our children to play openly in this neighborhood, particularly after one of our closest neighbors said he’d just burn the place down. Basically, what this boiled down to was a simple “not in my back yard” mentality.

We have not yet made a final decision about our appeal rights. We have several alternatives. We can start over with the Planning Commission. If its members have now read the Whittington Neighborhood Plan, perhaps the permit will be approved. But, even then, a decision either way would likely be appealed to the board of directors. We can file a complaint with the Fair Housing Commission. It is a proven fact that at least 20 percent of the homeless are disabled and the board’s denial of our permit is basically a denial of housing to the disabled. The city can be fined and forced to issue the permit. One consideration about that process is the length of time that the Commission has to investigate the complaint. We can also file an appeal with the court system to overturn the city’s decision. This may be successful, particularly in light of the fact that the term “residential group living facility” (for which we were applying to receive the conditional use permit) is not defined in the city planning code. The terms “homeless shelter” and “homeless” are also not defined there.

The planning department staff said that we had not provided enough information to them to issue a permit for a facility that is not even defined in their code. I assure you that we provided them with a comprehensive plan to open the facility in phases, with a floor plan provided by our architect and contractor, a parking plan, a signage plan and a description of what type of shelter we hoped to open. We described the staffing, the length of time that the women and children would be allowed to reside at the shelter, the hours of operation, and the types of services that would be provided to the women and children. We were asked additional questions, including a question about whether or not the school system would be able to handle our residents. We answered their additional questions. I assure you that, no matter what our response had been, the city staff was not going to support the issuance of the permit.

The city has indicated publicly that it has tried to help us find other locations. It is odd that the St. Michael’s facility that we toured would have been immediately approved for shelter use by the planning department, even though it, too, is zoned residential. The staff actually indicated that they sat around and discussed it and came up with the decision that it was feasible for us to use that facility because its last use had been primarily as a residential group living facility. This is one of those political paradoxes to me. The nursing home facility was not approved, even though its last use had been as a residential group living facility. I really think that the staff simply thought that no one in the St. Michael’s area would ever complain about a homeless shelter in that neighborhood. Another paradox: why does one neighborhood have a plan--a more heightened awareness of what can or cannot be approved in their neighborhood? If we are going to improve the livability of Hot Springs, shouldn’t all neighborhoods be treated equally? It is a shame that the St. Michael’s facility had lead paint, mold, asbestos and handicapped accessibility issues. It would need a $100,000 elevator to be operational for our use. It did not have a floor plan similar to the nursing home, since it is largely a chapel and open auditorium space, so bedrooms and restrooms would have to be built, together with a commercial kitchen and dining area. It is also a shame that we could not purchase that facility outright rather than lease from a religious organization. We were told that we would have to abide by that organization's rules and policies. Some of the city directors were suggesting that we put over $250,000 into renovating that facility that would never belong to us. I don’t think they understand that we have a fiduciary duty to our donors.

It is unfortunate that one of our city board members suggested that we simply use the vacated municipal water building on Malvern Avenue. Does anyone actually believe that we would have been able to fast track a conditional use permit for a facility that is primarily an office building on the same block as a major hotel, our convention auditorium and Summit Arena? Do you think any of the folks involved in our hotel and tourism industry would have had something to say about that?

Two condemned houses were suggested, but they had to be moved from the property where they were located. The city also initially suggested that we use the old Armory downtown. All of the city staff and directors knew that there had been a two-year process for the Rehabilitation Services to obtain that facility. They indicated that they do not have space available to us there.

We were also asked to look at a property at 408 Spring Street, which Mayor Carney and her husband donated to a local pregnancy center. The center had already put several thousand dollars into the building and could not see putting more into it. The upstairs windows are still broken, the place gets drenched each time it rains, the foundation and porch are crumbling, there is no handicapped accessibility and it would have to be re-constructed.

In all, we’ve probably looked at twenty different locations and facilities. Our final alternative is to continue to search for a facility that meets our needs, whether that is a structure or a piece of vacant land. Our primary goal is to do whatever is necessary to get a facility opened for the homeless women and children. We are disheartened by the board’s decision, but that has not swayed us from our original goal. We are also dismayed by the animosity shown by some in our community toward the homeless and those of us who have been working on their behalf. I assure you that their unkind words do not frighten nor deter us. The number of supporters and volunteers for this effort far outweigh the small mindedness of a few. Thank you again Max! I always appreciate your candor.

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Posted by JanieEvins on 01/22/2012 at 12:43 PM

 

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