by Max Brantley
When Mayor Mark Stodola's last-minute objection to a long planned relocation of a day center for veterans surfaced, U.S Rep. Tim Griffin joined the fray. From the Democrat-Gazette, quoting Griffin:
"I spoke with the VA staff [Thursday],” he said. “What concerns me is they led me to believe that they have been very open about the process, but it seems as though they did not provide information to the critical people in Little Rock who would have an interest in this issue. ... What is most telling is that the mayor’s homeless coordinator was not informed about this location.”
Ah, yes, the homeless coordinator. One of many city offices that missed notice of the VA plans to move published last July as well as recent chatter on a neighborhood group website about the project. Kathy Wells, president of the Coalition of Little Rock Neighborhoods, asked homeless coordinator Jimmy Pritchett if the city Homeless Commission had a position on the proposed move to 10th and Main of a service center that has operated without controversy for 15 years at 2nd and Ringo, less than a mile away as the crow flies. His response:
This group hasn’t met since March of 2010 except for a site visit to the East 9th location previously considered for the Day Resource Center which was held on December 1, 2010. The Mayor has indicated he wants to create a new body to replace this one which has basically disbanded.
So, somebody who'd want to talk to the city authority on homeless would have found it didn't exist.
That's not all. The VA has regular homeless summits and the city is always invited to attend, including the mayor. Neither the mayor nor his homeless coordinator attended the October summit, but a deputy city manager did. The VA said that, while the relocation of the center wasn't on the agenda, it was discussed informally at that session three months ago.
VA officials met this morning with U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin. Spokeswoman Debbie Meece said he toured the existing facility at 2nd and Ringo to learn about services there. He said he wanted to be fully informed before making a final decision on his position on the center's proposed new location.
About that word "proposed." A lease has been signed. The VA contract office is inquiring whether it can be broken without cost. But Dr. Tina McClain, the psychiatrist who heads mental health services for veterans in Central Arkansas, said that, despite comments that better places were available, nobody had pointed the VA in the direction of one yet. She said the Main Street location was ideal for the VA and was the product of a lengthy search.
VA officials will be at a Downtown Neighborhood Association meeting on the proposal Thursday night, along with the mayor, Griffin and a large crowd of residents.
"We feel strongly we have found an appropriate site," McClain said. "But we need to educate. If everyone fully understood what we're proposing, that opposition would greatly diminish."
The day drop-in center serves homeless veterans, but not exclusively homeless veterans. McClain and Meece said it would efficiently combine staff now housed at three locations, plus provide enclosed parking for VA vehicles used for shuttle services. Time is now wasted daily for employees to go to Fort Roots in North Little Rock to get vehicles and return them to the drop-in center. They could be locked up in the former auto dealer's service area.
McClain said she believes the VA center benefits in some ways from its current proximity to the Salvation Army transient shelter on Markham Street, but also suffers from a belief that all those seeking soup kitchen service and shelter are veterans. They are not.
She said vets using the drop-in center are sensitive to appearances and have formed a neighborhood watch group and even banded together to buy paint to cover a building marred by graffiti.
"We want to distinugish ourselves from the typical notion of a homeless shelter," she said. "We are a clinical service. This is an outpatient clinic. But we do provide services to people who are homeless."
She said nearly completed design plans will make a "beautiful" facility on Main and she said security would be provided by VA officers who understand the veterans' "culture." She said downtown was far better than moving to the city homeless shelter near Granite Mountain, as the mayor has suggested, first because that facility doesn't have space to accommodate the VA. But also, she said, the downtown location is near to other services the vets need, such as the Social Security office and banks, since most of them have regular sources of money.
The center will provide psychiatric assessment and treatment for non-serious mental illness; vocational counseling; a veterans benefits officer; employees who work with vets with legal problems and to help those who've been jailed move to treatment and housing; group and individual therapy; education; housing assistance (referrals to temporary and emergency housing, for example, but none on-site); a primary medical care service two days a week. McClain said the expanded center also will provide a better setting for training by social worker and psychiatric trainees from local schools.
VA officials' clear preference is to stick with the Main Street location. But they acknowledge that politics has altered the landscape. McClain she hoped a final decision could be made soon, perhaps within two weeks.