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story.lead_photo.caption Karen Martin

Benches line the Arkansas River Trail in North Shore Riverwalk Park east of Willow Street in North Little Rock. Most mornings they are occupied.

Thanks to a lack of armrests (meant to prevent people from reclining on them), the benches serve as beds for a number of men, and a few women. Wrapped in blankets, often barefoot with their shoes tucked beneath the bench and a backpack nearby, they sleep quietly on these warm days, which are comfortable before the sun rises too high.

It's hard to beat the view of the river and the city rising up from its southern banks..

Some of the makeshift bedding areas are tidy; others are littered with torn Styrofoam containers, plastic bottles, semi-crushed coffee cups, and abandoned clothing. A few of the occupants sit up as I walk past at sunrise with my three little dogs; shaking off the grogginess, slowly reconnecting with the world.

They're the ones most likely to get a visit from Audi.

She's a 15-pound registered therapy dog who adores everyone. When she spies a likely source of attention, she'll tug on her leash (she's surprisingly strong) and bring the rest of us along with her. When she gets within petting range of her conquest, she sticks her adorable face up, looks them in the eye, wags her stub of a tail, and refuses to leave until she gets a head rub.

She's seldom denied, and often provokes a murmured response regarding her cuteness, sweetness, friendliness, and raccoon mask. Bandit, some call her.

This is when I usually explain that she, Paris and Dublin are all girls, all rescues, and are barky terriers who are feisty, cheery, and fond of everyone except other dogs on leashes and skateboarders on the River Trail.

Our conversations rarely go beyond the dogs; Audi knows not to wear out her welcome when the still-snoozy bench occupant gives her a final pat and gazes out over the river. So she saunters off with an added spring in her short-legged step.

I like to think they've both brightened each others' day.

And, although it makes Audi happy to have so many potential admirers on her walking route, it's alarming how substantially the number of people sleeping outside has increased.

According to the Los Angeles Times, with the coronavirus-induced shock to the economy crippling businesses of all sizes and leaving millions of Americans out of work, homelessness in the U.S. could grow as much as 45 percent in a year.

That would mean an additional 250,000 or so people would be without permanent shelter compared with the 568,000 who were homeless in January 2019, according to government data.

The Nation reports that 39 percent of those who have lost their jobs since March made less than $40,000 a year, compared to 19 percent of those earning $100,000 or more.

And now that the weekly $600 unemployment bonuses that millions relied on through the end of July are gone, evictions are forcing people out of their apartments, houses and other living spaces. Once they exhaust options like staying with friends or relatives, they may find themselves with nowhere to go but into abandoned buildings, shelters, and onto the streets.

That results in more people who are vulnerable to contracting the coronavirus because they can't shelter in place and maintain social distancing.

"If you live in a big city, you can hardly miss the homeless, and you're undoubtedly familiar with the rituals of passersby," writes Rajan Menon in The Nation. "Some simply walk on, perhaps at a slightly quickened pace; others glance at the homeless but ignore [them]. Some do give them money or food from time to time, knowing that the gesture amounts to slapping a Band-Aid on a serious wound.

"Even those who see the homeless daily generally know very little about them--who they are, how they ended up on the street, how they manage to survive--and even less about the homeless who, having found a place in a shelter, are out of sight."

What's to be done? According to the Huffington Post, no city has ever come close to solving homelessness.

It's not through lack of trying. There are facilities working to make a difference, such as Gaines House in Little Rock (a transitional residence for homeless women ages 18 and older who have a mental, physical, or behavioral health disability), the Salvation Army, Our House, Helping Hand of Little Rock (with a food pantry, thrift shop, and monetary support for families in central Arkansas), Little Rock Compassion Center, and the Van, a mobile resource that visits homeless camps, alleys, cars, and public spaces in search of those needing food, water, clothing, and hygiene products.

Admittedly, there are no simple solutions. So what can we do to make a difference? Here are suggestions on helping the homeless from the Bowery Mission (bowery.org):

Smile, wave, say hello, start a simple conversation. This is easier than you think.

Provide a homeless person with a mask. Or hand sanitizer.

Share gift cards from fast food chains, granola bars, blankets, bottled water, a clean T-shirt in the summer, a pair of gloves in the winter.

And show respect for everyone. Be like Audi.

Karen Martin is senior editor of Perspective.

kmartin@arkansasonline.com

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