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A VA clinic on S. Main for indigent riles mayor

by L. Lamor Williams | January 7, 2012 at 4:46 a.m.

— Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola said plans for a homeless-veterans clinic across the street from a liquor store on South Main Street are “idiotic,” a “duplication of services” and a waste of federal tax dollars.

Officials for the U.S. and Arkansas Departments of Veterans Affairs say there will be some overlap between the services they plan to provide to former servicemen and those the city would provide at a yetto-open day resource center for the homeless, but they said the clinic’s services would be “complementary, not duplicative.”

Either way, residents and business owners in the area say such a clinic could damage the budding business district by drawing more transients who may stay in the area after the center closes each day.

Tina McClain, chief of mental-health services for Central Arkansas Veterans Health Care System, said the clinic would be at 1000 S. Main St., the former home of a Cook Jeep Chrysler dealership.

She said the agency has outgrown its clinic at Second and Ringo streets, and her agency is eager to expand the range of services offered.

“It will be a daytime clinic that will not include any beds,” she said. “We’ll provide psychiatric services, substance-abuse services, vocational rehabilitation and [housing assistance] services.”

Debby Meece, a spokesman for the VA, said the clinic would be open from 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. She said the department will lease the building, and that a contract has already been awarded for renovation. The clinic should open by early 2013.

During business hours, veterans can get two hot meals per day, breakfast and lunch, she said, noting that non-veterans would not be turned away.

The idea, while noble, doesn’t sit well with Jill Judy, a landlord and resident of the neighborhood.

“If I was a homeless veteran, that would become my neighborhood if for no other reason than I could get meals,” Judy said. “I think I can speak for all of the residents and say that nobody questions their mission. We question their view of how good the location would be and the fact that they did not weigh at all the impact the facility would have on the local economic community.”

McClain said the goal is to find homes for the veterans and help them get on their feet. She said shuttles will transport clients to temporary quarters at the department’s other sites, such as Fort Roots in North Little Rock.

Judy said this plan is little solace to her and others in the neighborhood.

“That’s a promise made, but you and I both know that the veterans may not want to go with them when they close the doors at 2:30,” Judy said. “Transportation offered is no assurance that transportation will be accepted.”

An unhappy Stodola said Friday that he’d only learned of the clinic this week.

“To take veterans who perhaps have alcohol and drug addictions and put them right across the street from the liquor store that has been a problem for us for years is just idiotic. It’s foolish,” he said, referring to the Warehouse Liquor Market. The owner of the store was unavailable for comment Friday.

“Additionally, it’s a duplication of services when we’re putting hundreds of thousands of dollars into our day resource center where we’ll have additional space for providers such as the veterans center. This makes no sense whatsoever.”

Stodola questioned whether the agency had provided proper notification to residents about its plans for the clinic, and he said that might be grounds to block it.

However, Meece provided a copy of a legal notification that appeared in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette eight times from July 14-21.

Still, Stodola said he’s contacted U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., who represents central Arkansas, to ask for his intervention.

Griffin said late Friday that he’s still researching the issue and he’s not going to “pre-judge” the situation.

He said he had “been in touch with Mayor Stodola probably 10 times at a minimum. I have had a lot of constituents call about it. I spoke with the VA staff [Thursday],” he said. “What concerns me is they led me to believe that they have been very open about the process, but it seems as though they did not provide information to the critical people in Little Rock who would have an interest in this issue. ... What is most telling is that the mayor’s homeless coordinator was not informed about this location.”

Griffin said his office will continue to study the 100-page contract between the department and the building’s owners, but noted that he already has concerns.

“My understanding is the contract was signed in early November. This is two months later and my office is just being told, the mayor just learned. Two months? What’s the deal there?” he asked. “I think it’s pretty fair to say that we should’ve known a lot sooner.”

Little Rock, in partnership with the Union Rescue Mission and North Little Rock, will open a day resource center for the homeless at the mission’s 3000 Confederate Blvd. location after the mission is finished renovating a nearby site.

Toby Mathew, deputy medical center director for the veterans department, said the clinic is part of President Barack Obama administration’s goal to reduce veterans’ homelessness rates over five years.

“The good news is that both the city and the federal level are trying to address homelessness in the community,” Mathew said. “The secretary of Veterans Affairs has a five-year plan and Little Rock has a 10-year plan.”

The day resource center is part of the capital city’s 10-year plan developed in 2005 by the Mayors’ Coalition on Homelessness.

McClain said the veterans clinic needs to be downtown because that’s where so many homeless people - veterans and non-veterans alike - congregate.

She said there may be some overlap of services, but that’s not unusual.

“You can liken this to other relationships that already exist,” she said. “Is the VA hospital a duplication of services compared to Baptist or UAMS?”

As for the proposed clinic’s proximity to the liquor store, McClain said that did initially give her pause.

The problem, she said, is that “these veterans are in walking distance of a facility that will provide them alcohol from any of the locations that I’ve seen.”

McClain said she and other department officials will attend the monthly meeting of the Downtown Neighborhood Association at 6 p.m.Thursday, at 500 E. 21st St.

“We want to be good neighbors and I think the neighborhood will find that this will be a plus, a feather in the cap for the city of Little Rock,” she said.

Front Section, Pages 1 on 01/07/2012

Print Headline: A VA clinic on S. Main for indigent riles mayor


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