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After four months of meeting to decide how and where to best offer meals to homeless people in Little Rock, a city volunteer task force decided Wednesday that feeding them isn't the problem that needs to be solved after all.

The committee now thinks it should figure out how to better provide homeless people access to services including health care, social work, housing and jobs.

The city Board of Directors originally asked the group to look into best practices for mass feedings of homeless people after a contentious ordinance was proposed by City Manager Bruce Moore that would have set restrictions on feeding large groups in city parks.

In July, the committee proposed a 90-day trial period to offer meals in a temporary tent near Jericho Way Homeless Day Resource Center on Springer Boulevard. It missed its target date of starting the meals Sept. 11 and has now decided to scrap the idea altogether.

"We've heard from folks that food is not the issue. People are being fed currently," said David Deere, representing the group Faith Voices.

Others on the volunteer committee said they determined that feeding homeless people at Jericho Way is "not feasible" after talking with groups that provide meals elsewhere in Little Rock. Advocates for the homeless often criticize the city-funded day resource center for being 4 miles from downtown and for having limited hours of operation.

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After more than an hour of discussion Wednesday, the committee decided to get a subgroup together and solicit feedback from a group of religious leaders that plans to meet next week. The subcommittee will then come up with a new set of recommendations.

The committee plans to report its new ideas to the Little Rock Board of Directors on Oct. 10.

Committee members didn't decide exactly what the new recommendations will touch on, aside from saying they won't be related to meals.

Some committee members said Wednesday that they were frustrated with meeting for so long and not taking any action.

"There's a lot of eloquent philosophical waxing and not a whole lot of 'what's the problem and how are you going to solve it,'" said Carter Ferguson, senior pastor at Canvas Community United Methodist Missional Congregation. "We can talk about our heart and how we feel the homeless are being treated, but it's not fixing anything. There's a lot of being frustrated and angry but not doing anything."

He said Canvas Community discovered that there are services to help with various problems that homeless people face, but the services aren't in a central location and providers sometimes compete with one another.

"Insurance, doctor, mental health, housing, case-working -- how do we get that all in one spot and get everything done in one day," he asked.

"The problem is we are so busy arguing why people are homeless and why the homeless are downtown that we are missing the issue. And feeding is not the issue," he said later. "For us [at the church,] it's trying to remove every barrier that exists."

So Canvas Community is working on agreements with several groups to locate an office or kiosk within the church's downtown building to provide a Department of Human Services caseworker, a parole officer, medical care and mental health evaluations for homeless people, Ferguson said. Details still have to be worked out because it's not feasible for all those services to be free, he said.

Derrick Clark, a homeless man who serves on the city committee, said the group is now going back to square one after scrapping the trial meal program.

In its first meeting four months ago, the committee talked about various services for homeless people but decided it was only narrowly appointed to address feeding. Now it's saying feeding isn't the issue and it needs to look at services again, Clark pointed out.

"Let's spend more time on a solution and stop talking about the problem. We all know what the problem is. Let's run full force toward this Canvas idea," he said.

Committee chairman Jordan Johnson admitted that the direction of the group is changing "dramatically" from the task it was given after the parks ordinance was proposed.

The ordinance was meant to target what is known as the Broadway Bridge Project -- a feeding program in which churches and other groups provided meals under the Broadway Bridge on certain nights of the week, Assistant City Manager James Jones said. The bridge underpass is considered city parkland.

Because of the demolition and reconstruction of the bridge starting last year, the Broadway Bridge Project groups have been serving meals at From His Throne Ministries on Markham Street. In recent weeks, the Little Rock Police Department has made targeted patrols near that building and set up a camera across the street after complaints from at least one area business about the behavior of some homeless people.

The city doesn't want meals to be served under the bridge. Moore's proposed ordinance would have required groups to pay permit fees, give advanced notice and provide meals no more than twice a year in any one city park location if they fed more than 25 people.

The city Board of Directors didn't like the idea when Moore proposed it, so the board asked the volunteer committee to come up with a better option. The board in July accepted the committee's proposal of the trial feeding program at Jericho Way that was supposed to start this month.

While the city has given up on the original proposed ordinance, Jones said if groups go back to feeding homeless people under the bridge, officials might again propose restrictions. Such regulations would require approval from the city board.

Vice Mayor and Ward 3 Director Kathy Webb, one of the board members who created the volunteer committee, said Wednesday that the panel spends too much time rehashing old conversations every time it meets because new people join in.

Gabe Holmstrom, executive director of Downtown Little Rock Partnership and a member of the homeless committee, said the four months of meetings have not been for nothing. The group now has a better understanding of who is feeding the homeless in Little Rock and has done some research on what other cities are doing, he said.

"One thing that is becoming abundantly clear is where this problem is being successfully addressed and where solutions are being successfully executed is where all interested parties are working together in a cohesive manner," he said.

"The need is for a central location where services can be administered," Holmstrom said. "Now we find ourselves at a point [of] where do we go and what steps need to be taken?"

Jones told the committee that he sees its purpose as educating the city on what the next steps should be and how it can better help.

"If there are services being duplicated, how can we maybe not duplicate them and move in a direction where we are solving more of a problem that we initially thought was feeding?" Jones said.

One issue delaying the committee was a conflict over the city's perceived intentions.

Stephen Rose with the Arkansas Homeless Coalition told Jones that there is a mistrust of the city because it seems that officials just don't want homeless people downtown.

Jones agreed that "perception is reality" but said the only reason the city offered property near Jericho Way as a test site to feed the homeless is because no one else had any proposals. Officials didn't pick that location because it was away from downtown businesses but because it was next to the resource center and the city owned the property, Jones said.

If the trial program at Jericho Way had reached fruition, the meals would have been provided at a time when the center was not open and would not have been able to provide additional services to those who showed up to eat.

A Section on 09/21/2017

Print Headline: Group: Scratch food for indigent; LR panel shifts focus to services

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