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story.lead_photo.caption Ryan Peden sits on a table in the common room and dining area of the Conway Ministry Center’s winter warming station. Peden, who lives in Clarksville, was hired through a grant to be the winter-warming-station manager. The facility, at 766 Harkrider St., is open every night through Feb. 28 that the temperature is below 40 degrees. The warming station is open from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. - Photo by William Harvey

It was 15 degrees and still dark outside early Thursday morning when Jerry Lewis was leaving the Conway Ministry Center’s winter warming station.

The 50-year-old homeless man said spending the night there might have saved his life.

“I couldn’t have made it out here last night,” he said, sitting on his bicycle.

The Conway Ministry Center, 766 Harkrider St., is open from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. every day that the temperature is under 40 degrees. The center has room for up to 40 people to come in for a meal and a hot shower, and to sleep.

The center opened Christmas Eve and will remain open until Feb. 28.

“I came here at 7 last night. They fed me great. They’ve got real clean sheets and everything; I slept like a baby,” Lewis said.

Spring Hunter, executive director of the Conway Ministry Center, said it has been a “huge undertaking” to get the extended warming center organized and open.

Ten churches volunteered to “adopt” the warming station for a week each, providing volunteers and meals. Another church loaned its shower trailer, and the Women’s Shelter of Central Arkansas offered to do the mountains of laundry.

The Conway Ministry Center obtained a grant to pay for a full-time warming-station manager “so church volunteers can love and serve,” Hunter said.

It’s the third year that the nonprofit organization has had approval from the city for a warming center.

In the past, the Conway Ministry Center has been allowed to open only in “serious inclement weather,” when the temperature was in the 20s or there was snow and ice.

Once bad weather was predicted, Hunter said, ministry-center staff had to scramble to find volunteers and rush to the grocery store for food.

“Then, of course, the biggest most important piece of it — how do you communicate to a homeless population?” Hunter said.

She said the Homeless Task Force, created by Conway Mayor Bart Castleberry, looked at a model called Family Promise, where homeless people move from church to church every seven days.

“We don’t have to move it — we have the space to do it, but we don’t have staff or permission to open a homeless shelter,” she said. “The Homeless Task Force said the immediate short-term answer for this winter is to let us open a warming station, not just for snow and ice days.”

Hunter said research shows that most warming stations have a recommendation to open if temperatures are under 40 degrees.

She said the ministry center communicated with churches in October that they would be needed to step in if the warming station was approved.

She said the Homeless Task Force’s emergency shelter committee contacted Castleberry, who brought in the Conway Fire Department to help assess the city’s needs.

“Bart has worked hard to try to come up with something very compassionate for our homeless population and, at the same time, not disregard decisions that were made by the City Council in the past.”

The Conway Ministry Center was the center of controversy in 2015 when it asked for a rezoning to put a homeless shelter on its campus, which is near downtown Conway.

The Conway Planning Commission voted 7-1 in June 2015 to approve a request for a conditional-use permit for a crisis homeless shelter. The facility would have provided temporary shelter — a maximum of 45 to 60 days — with up to 30 beds. The plan was to operate the shelter from 4 p.m. to 9 a.m. daily.

The City Council voted in June 2015 to hold the request in committee and then discussed it but didn’t vote on the request at the council’s July 28, 2015, meeting, which meant the proposal failed, 7-0. One council member was absent. Several council members agreed there is a need for a shelter, but said the Conway Ministry Center is the wrong location.

“We’re not trying to skirt around the permit for a homeless shelter,” Hunter said. The ministry center wants a homeless shelter, but “not in this location.”

“What I really think we’re testing is a model,” Hunter said. She said the Homeless Task Force looked at a model called Family Promise, where the homeless move from church to church every seven days.

The task force, which includes representatives of nonprofit organizations and the Conway Police Department, is looking at how to make helping the homeless more of a community effort, instead of one nonprofit doing it all, Hunter said.

Castleberry said the decision to open the warming center was a life-safety issue.

“Spring has been so upfront about this. She really wants to help people; we want to help people,” Castleberry said. “This is cold weather; it can actually kill people. They were kind enough to open up their place.”

The mayor, the city’s former fire chief, said Fire Chief Mike Winter and his crew “worked real hard this spring so they could open up the warming center. We can’t go against the codes because if something did go wrong, we haven’t accomplished anything; we’ve put people in harm’s way,” Castleberry said.

Hunter said improvements were made to the facility, including to its electrical system and plumbing.

There are cots for 40 people, but Hunter said 25 to 30 can stay “really comfortably.” Areas are separated for men, women and families.

Eight people stayed at the center in the first 48 hours.

“That’s significantly more than we’ve had the first days in the past,” Hunter said. “We’ve sheltered 16 individuals so far.”

She said the word was spread about the warming center through The Salvation Army and Bethlehem House, a transitional homeless shelter in Conway.

Ryan Peden of Clarksville, the full-time warming-station manager, said he starts checking people in at 6 p.m.

He contacts the Conway Police Department to see if the person seeking shelter has outstanding warrants, and he checks the sex-offender registry.

“We have some routine that keeps everything very structured and safe for everybody,” Peden said. “It functions like a homeless shelter at night.”

After dinner, people “eat, play cards; there’s a TV here in the community room. It’s a good time to mingle and be human,” he said.

People settle down for the night between 10 and 10:30 p.m.

Peden, 29, said he has a good understanding of the people he’s helping because he’s been homeless.

Peden said he was heavily involved in church as he grew up in Clarksville.

“When I was 25, I took off and started backpacking around Europe for eight months; three months of that was sleeping on the street in Greece, Spain, France, Germany, Romania. … I was homeless. I was on a shoestring budget. I only had money for the occasional food article and transportation.

“I have maybe a higher-than-average consciousness about what it means to be homeless,” he said.

A graduate of Arkansas Tech University in Russellville, he also has a Master of Arts degree in theology. He said he has spent the past year working to pay back school loans and spend time with his family. Without the support of his parents, Peden said, he might have been homeless stateside, too.

He has a bedroom in the warming station, but he is up most of the night to keep an eye on things. He also has a full-time job in Clarksville.

He makes sure everyone is out of the warming station by 7 a.m.

“One part of homelessness that people don’t think about … at 7 o’clock in the morning, they’re gone. What are they supposed to do? They don’t have jobs; they don’t have a living room to go sit in. Homeless people can’t go sit in Starbucks. It’s a lot harder to do when you look like you haven’t showered in three weeks, and you’re wearing all the sweaters you own.”

Peden said one man left on Christmas Eve and slept in his tent, but he came back on Christmas Day because it was just too cold.

Peden is aware of the concerns that homeless people have mental illnesses or are on drugs.

“Point taken, but where are they supposed to go?” he asked. “Homelessness is complicated and true.

“There are people today, while we’re talking, outside wearing three, four jackets given to them, … and they have no choice, and they’re constantly being asked to move along.”

He said they may sit on park benches for hours.

“Go sit out in the cold wind and wander around the city for a day — it is exhausting,” he said.

Peden said he’s interested in seeing how the next few weeks work out using church volunteers at the center.

“It’s a good way of getting Conway’s feet wet, hopefully, and we’re building rapport with these [homeless] people,” he said. “They have way more to lose. They trust us with literally the only things they own. Doesn’t seem like much, but when everything you own is on the bag on your back — ‘Let us hold it for you’; that can be anxiety-filled.

“If the homeless population doesn’t trust an organization, then they won’t use it.”

Lewis said he sleeps in Conway wherever he can find a place, often a laundromat, until the owner runs him out. He said he had family problems in his life and started using drugs, which he doesn’t now, and that contributed to his homelessness.

Lewis said he would ride his bicycle to a job interview Thursday morning at a construction company.

“I should get it. I’m rough and rugged, and that’s what they’re looking for,” he said with a laugh.

But tonight, Lewis said, he’ll be back at the warming center for his only meal of the day and a good night’s sleep.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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