The frigid February weather dumping inches of snow amid dangerously cold temperatures have presented stiff challenges to Little Rock’s homeless services providers. But thanks to the vision of Little Rock homeless advocacy group The Van and the facilities of the Arkansas State Fairgrounds, many destitute residents found themselves warm and safe. And city officials are taking a cue from the effort in the hopes of creating a more permanent solution in time for the next emergency.
As a mobile outreach, The Van isn’t set up to provide a warming shelter at its headquarters. So, leadership set out to find a way to provide it elsewhere, an effort that led it to the Arkansas State Fairgrounds’ Hall of Industry. The operation, which provided shelter for up to 90 people a night from Feb. 10 to 16, was months in the planning said Paul Henry, communications director with Ronald McDonald House Charities of Arkansas and board member with The Van.
“Back in the fall, [Van founder] Aaron Reddin started thinking, OK, we’ve got COVID and winter’s going to come,” he said. “We’re used to having Second Baptist Church and Levy Church of Christ, smaller buildings where you can cram a lot of people in and not worry about spacing and such. We knew that was going to be off the table so we thought, where are the places around town that might work?”
“We were even looking at things like covered parking decks and stuff to get people out of the elements where you could get heaters. All that got shot down because people don’t want to do stuff like that. Then somebody thought, ‘What about the fairgrounds?’ So, went out here and they were more than happy to be a part of it.”
Doug White, president and general manager of the State Fair Complex, said the decision to get behind what The Van was trying to do was an easy one to make.
“We’ve got facilities, we’ve got ample parking, we can practice social distancing,” he said. “With a little bit of preparation and effort, making sure the heaters are turned on full blast and things like that, we can turn the Hall of Industry into a command center and have done so for many groups.”
The facility provided The Van with 25,000 square feet and kitchen facilities that allowed for hot meals. Henry said appropriate distancing and temperature checks were adhered to throughout the week.
“The space itself was ideal,” Henry said. “I mean, it was perfect because everyone could spread out. Everyone was required to wear a mask. Everyone had to be temperature checked and screened when they came in. We were trying to do everything we could to keep everybody safe. It was under cover, it was warm. We were able to have food prepared in a separate room and bring it out. It was good.”
Bruce Moore, city manager, praised the effort as well as those by the city’s other homeless resources and shelters. Toward the end of the week, Moore reached out to Van leadership with an offer of the city paying the rent on the Hall of Industry as well as providing additional police presence.
“The Van did a tremendous job,” he said. “We wanted initially to assist them and determine what they might need, whether it was financial support or in this case, they also needed some help with security. LRPD helped with that, just have a patrol car go through at times during the week.”
Moore said the city also coordinated with other groups in Little Rock to be a resource for them as they worked to protect the homeless from the elements.
“Obviously we have a great partnership with Jericho Way who administers our day resource center,” he said. “Also, as we were preparing for inclement weather, we surveyed the providers and in one case found where Union Rescue Mission was willing to expand their bed capacity. So, we worked with them on providing PPE, food and cleaning supplies and things like that.”
“Once we were made aware [The Van] was actually going to cease operations Feb. 17, Mandy Davis at Jericho Way and city staff members began to assess the situation and how to get individuals to shelters that had capacity, but also get individuals to hotels or motels that we partnerships with. We even try to be as flexible as possible for [homeless] individuals who have pets. We board [animals] at the Animal Village.”
The Van’s warming center was contracted to vacate on Feb. 17. And while it was erroneously reported that the city was going to pay to rent Barton Coliseum at the fairgrounds – a miscommunication for which James took responsibility — Henry said the group couldn’t have operated longer anyway, despite the fresh round of snowfall Feb. 17. The Van had difficulty in recruiting volunteers to man the building, in part due to road conditions, and by Wednesday the group was running low on food and energy.
“There was an understanding that we were going to get out on Wednesday morning. That was the plan all along,” he said. “But there was also the fact that you’ve got literally a handful of people that are able to be down there as volunteers 24/7. You need 24 hours of at least two people there and you’ve got people that gotta come in and make the food and serve it and all that. Doing that for a week with just a handful of people, it’s really not feasible.”
Moore said the city is taking such feedback and combining it with other reports from entities around the city to identify bottlenecks and shortcomings within the process of serving the homeless. As a result, he said, city leadership now has specific goals for shoring up capacity to deal with future emergencies.
“I don’t know what mechanism we’re going to use, but we believe we need to go to a public process to engage someone that would be able to stand up an emergency operation overnight shelter,” he said. “That’s not to compete with the current providers out there. I think the expectations of not only the citizens but of ourselves is that we need to provide for the less fortunate during these times.”
“Again, I don’t know what it will look like. Our emergency manager staff is doing some research once we get through this on how other cities have operated overnight shelters. We know in Houston that they go to the arena there. We also know one of the biggest complications is just being able to get staff or volunteers to a location. So, we’re going to spend some time and look at best practices.”
Doug White, meanwhile, said the fairgrounds would be interested in being included in such discussions, given it has assets ideally suited to be part of such a plan.
“While the 10 days of the State Fair is certainly the preeminent event for the year for the fairgrounds, we are actually much more than that,” he said. “We have an arrangement right now with Entergy that allows their crews from the entire Entergy region headquartered in New Orleans to come here, stage their digger derricks and pole trucks here and get fed all in a safe, secure environment. Then, when they’re prepared to begin restoration efforts, they’re that much closer. We’ve had a relationship with them for years to do that.”
“We’ve also got a program right now where we’re helping feed disadvantaged children in Southwest Little Rock by donating our commercial kitchen that we have, which is not in use right now, to different restauranteurs and entrepreneurs. That’s what we want people to realize; we’re probably the biggest economic engine for Southwest Little Rock. This could be just one more way we can reach out to the community.”