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For activist in Little Rock area, headcount of homeless presents same challenges he faces most days

by Daniel McFadin | January 30, 2023 at 6:14 a.m.
Aaron Reddin, founder of The Van, shakes hands with Ron Ostrandei after giving him new clothes and supplies Thursday, Jan. 27, 2023 along England Road in North Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

Aaron Reddin's van has "a little bit of everything."

When the side door of the white Dodge Ram 2500 slides open, it reveals clothes, sleeping bags, tents, and shelves and containers full of supplies: Lotion, lip balm, soap, tissues, laundry detergent, shaving cream, razors and more.

Reddin could be mistaken for a doomsday prepper.

"I've been mistaken for a lot of things," Reddin quipped.

But the 41-year-old isn't prepping for the end of the world.

On Thursday afternoon, the founder of The Van and The One Inc., was getting ready to drive his van to North Little Rock.

There, Reddin would do two things. He'd do his regular job of providing aid and supplies to the area's unsheltered homeless population. At the same time, he would be helping to conduct the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Point-in-Time count.

Typically held every two years, it's a nationwide count of the country's sheltered and unsheltered homeless people. The count helps HUD determine how it will distribute grants to homelessness-service providers.

While there would be multiple stations around Little Rock's metro area where people would be counted, Reddin's role would be counting the homeless who couldn't or wouldn't make the trek to a center.

"What we do is drive around and get folks that are in camps backpacks to try to incentivize participation," Reddin said. "We'll be targeting folks that ... they're not walking across town to [take part in the survey]."

To incentivize participation, he would be "trying to meet immediate needs as immediately as possible."

Attached to his van is a trailer.

Inside on this day were 40 backpacks and sack lunches. Any homeless person who provided their name as part of the Point-in-Time count would be given a backpack.

Each backpack was filled with supplies: towels, disinfectant, masks, socks, gloves, wipes and ... condoms.

"We don't need any babies born into homelessness," Reddin said.

Reddin has been working with Little Rock's homeless population for roughly 15 years.

In that time he's dealt with "some folks for years," he said Thursday. "Some folks we'll probably meet tonight for the first time. So it's a little bit of every everybody."

Reddin wouldn't be alone in his mission Thursday night.

Joining him was his "old man," a 12-year old dog named Baxter, and his "guard dog," an old chihuahua named Pinky.

"[Pinky's] only got one tooth left," Reddin said. "So he can't do much damage."

Before loading Baxter and Pinky up to leave The Van's warehouse headquarters in south Little Rock, Reddin showed off a stack of small white papers.

The papers were what Reddin and others across the state would fill out to document the count. They had sections for age, gender, ethnicity, race and "homeless subpopulations," including whether a homeless person is a veteran or mentally ill.

"It's a little intrusive," Reddin said. "Like, I don't ask people if they have HIV or if they have a substance use disorder. Or 'are you mentally ill?' I mean, what the hell? I'm not asking people some of the stuff. So unless it's obvious, it doesn't get marked from me."

Soon, Reddin and his van were off.


Reddin's first stop came at 3:40 p.m.

After taking an off-ramp from the highway, Reddin quickly pulled to the side of the road and waited.

A few moments passed before a man emerged from a bank of trees on the other side of the road and scampered across to the van.

His name was Ron Ostrandei.

Originally from Michigan, Ostrandei said he had been in the Little Rock area "for a while" after hiking for three days from Oklahoma to be with his wife, Cristy. Reddin estimated he had known him for a few years.

"I was hoping they'd be somewhere around here," said Reddin.

Wearing a Nike jacket, camo pants and rubber boots, Ostrandei browsed through the van's wares, getting clothes, supplies and two backpacks.

What was Ostrandei's assessment of Reddin?

"That [I'm] a piece of [expletive]," Reddin joked.

"I know some people that think that, but I think you're all right," Ostrandei replied.

After tying his haul into a bundle, Ostrandei crossed the street and disappeared back into the trees.


About 15 minutes later, Reddin pulled into a McDonald's parking lot.

He drove around the back of the building, but found no sign of any homeless people in the wooded area behind it.

At 4:05 p.m., Reddin and his van came to a stop outside a liquor store in the McAlmont area.

Initially, four people stood to the side of the building when Reddin arrived, but over the next 40 minutes between six and 10 people would filter into the area to receive clothes, supplies, tents and backpacks.

Among them were a couple, Hollie Lane and Shane Brown, and their two dogs, Beebop and Chewie.

Originally from Mississippi, they said that had been stranded in the Little Rock area for almost two weeks after their car was stolen.

"This is so freaking awesome," Lane said after time spent picking out clothes and supplies.

"I would say this is the nicest thing that has happened since we have actually been stranded here," Lane said. "This gives us a little hope to look forward to like, not everybody in the world is horrible."

"You get jaded real quick," Brown said. "We've never been in a situation [like this]."

"It's like one thing after the other," said Lane.


Around 5:15 p.m., a car stopped at a red light in front of the Lowe's located at the intersection of East McCain Boulevard and Smokey Lane.

A woman sitting on the passenger side of the car turned and looked out her window. Without giving any sign that she cared about the scene unfolding before her, she turned away.

She had watched as Reddin attempted to help a Black homeless man move from the ground to the bench of the open-air bus stop he was in.

It wasn't easy.

His head covered by a blanket and wearing soiled pants, the man was incapacitated and barely able to communicate clearly, other than to say his name was Jeffrey.

Having communication issues with a homeless person isn't uncommon.

"We see it all," Reddin said. "I've got a friend that teaches at the school for the deaf, I've had to call her up sometimes to come and interpret."

Amid multiple attempts to move Jeffrey, Reddin observed a bracelet on his wrist.

"He was recently discharged from the hospital like this," Reddin said.

At one point, Reddin went to the van's trailer to get a backpack and a blanket for Jeffrey.

"I don't know what to do, I really don't," Reddin said. "Do I call an ambulance? Sometimes I don't know whether to be mad or sad."

Eventually, Reddin was successful in getting Jeffrey onto the bench.

After he helped place Jeffrey's new backpack and blanket in a shopping cart that had his few possessions, Reddin prepared to leave.

"Thank you, Aaron," Jeffrey managed to say as Reddin gave him a fist bump.

By now there were roughly 20 backpacks left in the trailer for Reddin to give out.

Nights like this could be "taxing" on him, Reddin acknowledged.

"It'll wear you out. But you get the good sides, too," Reddin said.

In a month, a friend of his, "Little Eddie," will celebrate 10 years of living in a home after 20 years spent living under a bridge.

That situation had involved getting Eddie's disability payments in order so he could save up enough for a place to stay.

Getting out of homelessness "depends on what you're up against" said Reddin, gesturing to indicate Jeffrey at the bus stop.

"I don't know what all this guy's up against," he said. "Tomorrow I'll probably come back by when I don't have to do the count and check on him a little more intensively and see if there's any more we can do. ...

"There's a good chance we'll lose track of him. He can't stay in that bus stop forever."

After about 20 minutes with Jeffrey, it was time for Reddin to move on.

There were more people to help.


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