As temperatures drop and Arkansas slinks toward winter weather, shelter options for the homeless in Little Rock are scarce. With the October closing of 40 emergency beds at Union Rescue Mission’s Nehemiah House, many homeless people in Central Arkansas are left with two choices: staying at Little Rock Compassion Center or sleeping outside.
Choices are especially limited for single men. The Salvation Army once gave men a bed for the night but changed that practice in July 2016. Its beds are now restricted to women and children; men can stay only if they’re part of a family unit. The cities of Little Rock and North Little Rock support a day center, but not beds for overnight stays for either men or women. Abba House is for women and children only; St. Francis House houses veterans only. Lucie’s Place has a shelter with eight beds for LGBT young people. Our House provides housing to single men, but does not have enough beds to meet demand. The shelter also requires all residents to find a full-time job shortly after arriving and maintain it throughout their stay.
The faith-based Compassion Center, at 3618 W. Roosevelt Road, has 150 beds. With the closing of the beds at Nehemiah House, however, Compassion is bedding up to 200 men and women a night, some of them sleeping on mats for lack of mattresses, pastor and CEO William Holloway said. The women sleep separately at Compassion’s shelter at 4210 Asher Ave.
The Compassion Center is a “hot and a cot” shelter, offering a hot meal at night and breakfast in the morning. It also operates a 12-step program for people with drug and alcohol addictions and hosts worship services on Wednesdays and Sundays and daily prayer every morning and night.
The religious tenor of the Compassion Center has prompted allegations — denied by Holloway — that LGBT individuals are denied shelter there and those who are allowed to stay are subject to intense proselytization. There have also been complaints about overcrowding and a lack of hygiene products for those housed there.
Mandy Davis, director of Jericho Way Resource Center, the city’s day center, says the Compassion Center provides an important service to Little Rock by allowing the homeless long-term stays, which makes it possible for Jericho’s social workers to keep in touch. “I need stabilized people in order for social workers to be as effective as they can be here at Jericho Way,” Davis said. “So I might have the professionals on staff; but, if we as a city don’t have emergency shelter beds for people living on the streets, then how do you work those cases if they’re living outside and struggling to meet their basic needs? Or freezing to death, or having to have limbs amputated? This gets complicated.”
In addition to case management, Jericho Way, at 3000 Springer Blvd., provides access to computers, internet and local phone service, showers and restrooms, laundry services, housing referrals and access to job counseling and training. Open from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.*, it serves breakfast and lunch and provides transportation to and from the day center. Jericho Way, which is run by the nonprofit DePaul USA**, is jointly funded by the cities of Little Rock and North Little Rock.
Those who will suffer the most from the lack of beds are individuals who are not able-bodied, Davis said. The Compassion Center, which is not handicapped-accessible, plans to install a chair lift, but probably not before the weather gets more severe.
Pinning down how many people in Central Arkansas are homeless is difficult. The nonprofit Central Arkansas Team Care for the Homeless (CATCH) tallied 369 unsheltered men and 139 unsheltered women over a period of 24 hours in 2017. But Sandra Wilson, president of the Arkansas Homeless Coalition, said the count excludes many homeless people. It is tailored to those individuals targeted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s specific homeless programs and is intended only to represent the number of people eligible for those programs.
Little Rock’s 2018 annual operating budget lists $375,000 for Homelessness Outreach, up $25,000 from 2017 and 2016’s annual budgets. The city of Little Rock also employs a homeless services advocate, Chris Porter, a former case manager at Jericho Way.
Despite the fact that the Compassion Center says it’s so crowded it has people sleeping on mats rather than in beds, Porter said he isn’t worried about the Compassion Center exceeding its bed capacity. He said Holloway has told him that the Compassion Center has an additional floor it could open up for more shelter.
“I’ve yet to see when the Compassion Center said it was overfull,” Porter said. “There are beds available. People just don’t choose to go to the beds. When I hear the Compassion Center say, ‘We are overflowed and we don’t have a bed,’ then I’ll say, we’ve got a big problem.”
And until then?
“Until then, I live in the here and the now,” Porter said. “I just have the confidence that right now, people don’t have to be outside if they don’t want to be,” he said.
As for plans to expand available shelter options, Porter said the city “is not in the business of shelter. They rely primarily on people who have shelters. … That’s my understanding, because shelters are in the business of sheltering.”
While Porter may be confident the Compassion Center can handle the need for beds in Little Rock this winter, other service providers are not so sure.
Roger Mauldin, who volunteers at The Van, an organization that brings supplies such as food, water, clothing and hygiene products to homeless folks where they’re living, lived on the streets for about four years. He said he never stayed at the Compassion Center, even when his choice was between sleeping there or sleeping in the cold. He said his brother tried to stay there but was denied entry for carrying too many possessions with him.
Penelope Poppers, who founded Lucie’s Place, said she’s heard that those who run the Compassion Center “famously don’t love LGBT people, and they openly deny housing to LGBT people.” But Holloway said there’s no policy to deny shelter to gay or lesbian or trans people. “I don’t discriminate against anybody,” he said.
Service providers told the Times that the Compassion Center’s evangelical mission drives most of the complaints they hear.
If a resident rejects the Christian message, Holloway said, “I let them make up their own mind what they want to do. That’s their answer to that problem, not mine. That don’t stop me from housing them, that don’t stop me from feeding them, and it don’t stop me from preaching to them. And sooner or later, they will listen.
“That’s what we do, that’s what we were founded on. We based this whole center around Christ, so it’s all spiritual, right? But also at the same time we don’t turn people away because they don’t believe like I do. I still go ahead and feed them. When Jesus fed the 5,000 on the mount, I don’t think he went around and said, ‘Do you believe in me? Do you trust me?’ He just fed them all, and that’s what I believe in.”
Antonio, a full-time volunteer at Jericho Way, was staying at the Compassion Center when a reporter interviewed him. He asked the Arkansas Times not to include his last name in this story because some of his family doesn’t know that he’s homeless. Antonio, who says he left Pine Bluff on foot to escape the city’s high crime rate, said he’s glad the Center exists, and he understands the rules it has in place.
“It’s been different than having your own place, your own house,” he said. “I’m not gonna say they have a bunch of rules, because the rules they’ve got are for people’s safety. They actually try to help people all they can. … I mean, all and all, I’m grateful that the place is there. If it wasn’t there, I’d be sleeping on the street, which I’ve never tried, and I don’t want to, either.”
Asked about the complaint that the Compassion Center doesn’t provide enough hygiene products for the people staying there, Antonio said churches and other organizations often give out hygiene products on the weekends, so people have access to them for free. And anything the Compassion Center gets, he said, it’ll put out for shelter residents to use.
Antonio also said that anything he collects he has to carry around with him, so he often chooses to donate the deodorant or toothpaste he picks up from those churches to others in need. “Even though you’re in this position, you can still help somebody. … It kinda builds you up a little bit, lets you know that you ain’t just all the way down and out. You still have the ability to help somebody.”
Antonio said he gets up around 3:30 every morning — early to rise at the Compassion Center means one might have the bathroom to himself — and takes three different buses to arrive at Jericho Way and mop up before it opens.
“I look at homelessness as, I’ve found trials and tribulations, and the Bible says we’re going to have those, but they’ll pass,” he said. “It’s not like nobody is going to pull up on the road and say, ‘Here’s a house and a car, I put you some money in the bank.’ You’ve got to work for it, you’ve got to get out and do what you’ve got to do.”
The Compassion Center’s men’s shelter and thrift store is housed in a former Salvation Army building. Its entrance is manned by staff members who speak to new arrivals from behind a Plexiglas wall. Holloway showed a reporter around the facility and introduced many of the organization’s success stories, calling over some of the individuals working at the shelter with variations of “Hey, brother! How long have you been with us?”
When people arrive at the shelter, they’re given a clean set of clothes and a voucher to pick out items they need from the Compassion Center’s thrift store, which raises funds for the shelter.
Jimmy Townsend, head of housekeeping at the Compassion Center, has been at the center for three years. Originally from California, he and Holloway said the homeless often abandon suitcases and belongings when they become too heavy to continue carrying.
“Dragging that suitcase behind you gets heavy,” Townsend said. “Especially when it’s raining, with nowhere to go. Just throw it down.”
Holloway pointed out their nurse’s station, where he said a nurse volunteers six or seven times a month. The nurses provide basic medical services such as checking blood pressure and body temperature. Holloway said the Compassion Center was in the beginning stages of renovating the nurse’s station, classrooms and meeting rooms in the facility when Nehemiah House’s 40 emergency beds closed.
Most of those who come to the Compassion Center “are happy to be in out of the weather,” Holloway said. “If you’re out there sleeping under a tree and it’s raining on you all night long, this is a dry, safe place. We have security here, and we have a full-time night watchman here, and a residential manager.”
That takes money. With extra people sheltering there, the Compassion Center is focused on housing and feeding all who walk through their doors. The recent increase in residents has put a particular strain on food supplies. According to Antonio, residents have been eating a lot of beans and rice.
The kitchen staff includes folks participating in the drug and alcohol recovery programs and some performing community service. Diana Warden, who’s been at the facility for five months and works in the kitchen, said she came there “to get my life together so the Lord could help me better myself. My life was unmanageable, I was on drugs for 30 years, and it really has helped my life. I’m so grateful for this program. … I want to spend the rest of my days sober, the rest of my life on this earth is going to be sober. I take my sobriety very seriously. … That’s the good part about the program, it helps you change your life. The 12-step program is close to my heart, and I’m very grateful to the pastor and his wife for starting the program. I am.”
Kitchen worker Larry Thomas came to the center in 2008 while struggling with drug and alcohol abuse. “I came to find Jesus. I knew where he was, but I just couldn’t get there the way I was going,” Thomas said. Thomas completed the eight-month 12-step program and was then offered a job in the kitchen. He’s now married. “He was planning on leaving, so I had to go out and find him a wife,” Holloway said. Thomas added, “The pastor’s been holding me here under lock and key for the last 10 years and 10 months.”
Past the kitchen, a large warehouse divided into metal cages is filled with donations, including a large walk-in freezer the center was given and a veritable wall of bags containing donated clothes. Most of the clothes are donated through blue Compassion Center donation boxes located around town, according to Holloway. The clothes are sorted into three categories: clothes used by the center for new arrivals, clothes designated to sell in the thrift store, and clothes that are bundled and sent to a recycling center in Houston, a transaction for which the center is paid.
As the CEO of the center, Holloway said he relies heavily on the center’s donor base for funding; a recent gift from a donor allowed them to order a stack of new beds. Despite the strain the emergency bed scarcity is putting on their resources, Holloway said he and his staff make it work.
“We know most of the homeless people who come through, or we learn to know them,” he said. “We try to help them out as much as we possibly can, but the only ones we can’t help out are the ones who are violent. If you’ve got a bad temper or anger and are wanting to fight all the time, you can’t do much for that person.”
Holloway said some of the policies in place — like requiring that new arrivals check-in their cell phones overnight before they’re given back in the morning — are to combat issues they’ve had with residents fighting. “We keep them from doing any drug dealing or prostitution or anything like that for safeguard,” he said. People in the drug and alcohol programs aren’t allowed to have their phones for the first two months of the program. “They’re here for a reason, they’re trying to get their life together. … We’re trying to build up strength to say no and get them back to thinking again,” he said.
Even with the message of the Gospel attached to the services the Compassion Center provides, it’s still the only shelter in Little Rock with emergency beds available without stipulation, like having to pass a drug test or joining a long-term program. Aaron Reddin, the founder of The Van and a longtime homeless advocate in Little Rock, said the key problem for those serving homeless folks is this skewed ratio of people to services.
“There’s more people than there are services available,” he said. “We see [this] every year this time of year. We’re a rural state. This is what we can’t seem to get through to anyone that should be looking at the big picture of it all … . There’s an influx every year, about this time when the temps drop, from folks in rural Arkansas who come here thinking they’re going to get some help, they’re going to get inside. And then everyone here ends up overloaded.”
Reddin said the navigation of bureaucratic red tape, like zoning issues and time delays, by those who have the authority to work through them, would be crucial in opening more emergency shelters for the winter months and in creating long-term solutions after that. Reddin said he’s encoutered problems with city code enforcement kicking people out of camps in the woods but offering no alternative place to stay, aside from shelters located miles away.
So what would Reddin call for from those in positions of power to create change? “Acknowledge that you have screwed your own citizens and apologize for it, for one,” he said. “That would be a really great first step. You’re the leaders of this city, and I know you have to have codes, and all of these things. I understand that. But when you have a public health crisis, such as hundreds of people sleeping in this crap on your streets and in any patch of woods you can find, then you have to pull your big person britches up.”
Davis said remedying the recent loss of those 40 beds would be the first step to stabilization. “I think that one solution would be partners, including the city partnering with a nonprofit or a church, and opening 40 beds,” she said. “We lost 40 at the [Union Rescue] Mission, so start there, because we can’t implement new interventions to reduce the number of people living on the streets if we can’t hold the interventions that we have. So, we need to pivot at this point and not try to do more. Instead, we need to back up and say, we’ve lost these beds, how can we fill them?”
Holloway believes the most pressing need for people experiencing homelessness in Little Rock is Jesus. “Christ in the life is what’s most needed, and the rest will kind of take place. I know you can’t print that.”
He also said he’s working to develop a crisis center or hotline for people experiencing homelessness to call to help figure out their next steps. Teaching home economics, shop and mechanics classes in high school again would be an important step for teaching people trades early on in their careers.
Asked what the city is doing to improve conditions for the homeless, Porter referenced the recent efforts of city-funded Jericho Way to create more affordable housing for people exiting homelessness, as well as their case management services, but said that help is available there only for those that want it.
“If you’ve been over there [at Jericho Way], you know that there are some people who don’t want it,” he said. He noted that Jesus had been homeless and had told his disciples, ” ‘Well, I’m getting ready to leave you guys, but the poor are going to be with you always.’
“And so it is. Not that we should be all right with that, but we should have compassion for that. They’re gonna be with us. We need to always try to help them. Always be concerned about them but, at the same time, respect that that is a truth that won’t change.”
*A previous version of this story incorrectly listed Jericho Way’s closing time as 3:30 p.m.
**A previous version of this story described Jericho Way as a Catholic nonprofit. It has roots in the Catholic Church, but it is not a faith-based organization.