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Homelessness focus of forum; Little Rock hopefuls call for change

by Emma Pettit | March 15, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

Two men exploring a run for Little Rock mayor offered ideas on how to curtail homelessness in Arkansas' capital city, both saying they want to veer from the status quo.

On Wednesday, Warwick Sabin, Frank Scott Jr. and candidates for city office, the state Legislature and the governorship participated in a forum at the Willie L. Hinton Neighborhood Resource Center.

Put on by the Arkansas Homeless Coalition, forum participants aired their thoughts on emergency shelters, legal campgrounds, substance abuse and mental health treatment, and a lack of affordable housing in central Arkansas.

Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola did not attend because he was in Washington, D.C., for the National League of Cities Congressional City Conference. Stodola is the league's president.

Sandra Wilson, president of the Arkansas Homeless Coalition's board, said talk must bring about action. That's much easier when elected officials buy in, she said.

"We've talked and we've talked about homelessness. We've created plans on how we were going to address homelessness. And yet, we still have homelessness," Wilson said.

In the greater Little Rock area, about 990 people were homeless when a tally was taken in 2017 by the Central Arkansas Team Care for the Homeless. About 550 people were living without any shelter, according to the count.

Tensions flared last year around a couple of issues involving homelessness within the Little Rock city limits.

Advocates spoke out when the Little Rock Police Department installed a surveillance camera across the street from From His Throne Ministries, which regularly provided services to homeless individuals.

And City Manager Bruce Moore introduced a contentious ordinance that would have required payment and 30 days notice for anyone to feed 25 or more people in a city park.

The ordinance, which the city gave up on, also would have limited any person or organization to just two "large group feedings" per park per year.

Sabin, a state legislator and founder of the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub, alluded to the abandoned feeding program ordinance.

Sometimes, the city needs to "get out of the way" of those who are trying to help, or those who need it, he told the audience.

City officials can also do a better job of coordinating with organizations -- nonprofits, churches and government agencies -- to identify gaps in existing care, he added.

When asked after the forum about the feeding program ordinance, Scott said, "there is a clear frustration from our community on the approach that has been taken."

Scott, a banker and associate pastor, emphasized to the crowd that "compassion" is part of his mindset. He also said he'd be open to a tiny home complex. It's an affordable housing option for homeless people that's grown in popularity across the country.

Reached by email, Stodola said he is "absolutely dedicated to continuing to follow the national model of focusing on housing first with regard to our neighbors experiencing homelessness."

The mayor said he, and others, worked for the past two years toward permanently housing homeless veterans.

Stodola added that he's proud of the Jericho Way Resource Center, which opened during his tenure in 2013 and is predominantly funded by the city of Little Rock.

Through Jericho Way, the city helped secure permanent housing for more than 70 people, the mayor said. Stodola also said he raised $200,000 in private donations to build more housing, which was directed to the resource center.

Much of Wednesday's discussion focused not just on the quantity of available housing, but on the quality, too.

Arkansas is the only state in the nation that does not have a law requiring landlords to promise a property is habitable, one audience member pointed out.

Called an implied warranty of habitability, it basically ensures that a residence has basics like running water, heat and air, Sabin said.

The issue "is not sexy," he said. "But we don't do enough to ensure that, again, our properties are up to standard, that people have a safe and habitable place to live."

Sabin also stressed the need for environmentally sustainable housing. When people live in inefficient homes, their money "goes right out the door on their light bill, on their heat bill, instead of being used to buy food, medicine, clothes for their kids," he said.

Scott, while agreeing with the need for warranties of habitability, highlighted a business-oriented approach.

"Yes, we need city ordinances. Yes, we need some dedicated funding. But if you want to see some transformational change, it's going to take more than city ordinances," he said.

Scott, a southwest Little Rock native, said the city is split into "mini cities." People seldom venture outside their geographic zones, he said.

What the focus should be, Scott said after the forum, is recruiting businesses to employ Little Rock residents and enticing industries, through incentives, to locate south of Interstate 630.

"The best way to address homelessness is, no matter where you are in your lot in life, that your city and your city leadership is making certain that there is equal opportunity for you to thrive, be successful and reach your true potential," Scott said.

"And you do that by having a job."

Information for this article was contributed by Chelsea Boozer and Eric Besson of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Metro on 03/15/2018

Print Headline: Homelessness focus of forum; LR hopefuls call for change

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