FAYETTEVILLE -- People experiencing homelessness in Fayetteville now have a safe, indoor place to go during the day for the first time in nine months.
7 Hills Homeless Center, which had closed its day center on South School Avenue in March because of the pandemic, has temporarily moved to a building owned by St. James Missionary Baptist Church on Willow Avenue.
Clients can go inside and get a cup of coffee and a hot meal at tables spaced out in the church's sanctuary.
The sanctuary's capacity is about the same as what the School Avenue center had before the pandemic, said Jessica Andrews, 7 Hills chief executive officer.
Under coronavirus protocols, up to 36 clients can congregate in the sanctuary, compared with six to eight at the School Avenue location, she said.
"Pre-covid, we weren't the only place where people could escape from the elements. Churches were open, people could still go sit in a McDonald's," she said. "Now, that's really not an option. We're one of very few, if not the only, places where people can come indoors."
People who go to the center must wear masks, have their temperatures checked and answer screening questions. There's a booth with a curtain drawn to offer privacy for clients receiving case management services. Food is served near the stage, and small tables are set up for people to be able to sit and eat.
Staff members work in a room behind the stage, among items such as jackets, socks, shoes, flashlights, blankets and other essential items. People are asked at the door what items they need, and the staff uses iPads to send the requests to the employees in the storage room, who carry the items out to the sanctuary.
So far, four people who showed symptoms of covid-19 or had fevers have been tested on-site at the day center, Andrews said. Two tested negative, and two tests are pending results, she said.
The 7 Hills facility closed the day center to visitors in March, but continued to distribute items and provide services to clients outside. Andrews said the staff knew that wouldn't work when the weather turned cold.
"Everything at our day center was working pretty well when the weather was nice, doing services out of the windows. People could still hang out outside," she said. "We moved simply because it's getting cold, and we needed to be able to welcome people inside."
The temporary center at St. James is open from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. The plan is to keep it going through March, until the weather gets warmer, Andrews said. 7 Hills is using the space rent-free, she said.
Richard Graham, 49, sat in the center, sipping a cup of coffee Tuesday. He said it's been a year unlike any other. He found himself homeless for the first time on top of a global pandemic. He was released from the Washington County jail about three weeks ago with nothing more than the clothes he was wearing, he said. He was living with friends in Madison County before he was arrested on drug offenses.
Graham said he's previously always had places to live and ways to provide for himself. But, this year, he found himself at loose ends, wearing an ankle monitor and unsure what to do next.
"It's scary," he said. "When I walked out of jail, I was like 'I don't know what I'm going to do.'"
He went to the Salvation Army's overnight shelter, where he has stayed since his release. He wants to get into the organization's rehabilitation program and find work.
The Salvation Army shelter is open from 5 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. daily and can hold about 70 people. It's closed during the day unless the wind chill is below 34 degrees, though.
Graham said 7 Hills and the Salvation Army have provided him essential services to help him get on a new path. He had no identification, for instance, and 7 Hills helped him with the paperwork and fees to obtain it.
Graham said he gets what he needs from the day center and is thankful to have a place to lay his head at night at the shelter.
"I've been in trouble a lot, and I'm not going to say I haven't. I'm not proud of it," Graham said. "Drugs have been a problem. I was asking for help."
Andrews said people are still getting used to the new temporary location. The center is likely to hit or get close to capacity when the weather gets particularly cold, she said.
Having 7 Hills operate its day center at the St. James building meshes with the church's efforts to address homelessness and poverty, said Monique Jones, minister. The church has its own food pantry and distributes goods to people in need, she said.
"It warms my heart to know that people who have slept outside or in any type of encampment have a place to go in order to stay warm for the day," Jones said. "Whether it's just them or them and their families, the space is large enough so everybody can social distance" and help stay safe during the pandemic.
How to help
The following organizations are helping people experiencing homelessness in the region stay safe and fed. They need help, too. Donations can be made online or by calling for more information.
• 7 Hills Homeless Center
1832 S. School Ave.
• Salvation Army
219 W. 15th St.
• St. James Missionary Baptist Church
764 W. North St.
Source: NWA Democrat-Gazette