For nearly three hours (6-9 p.m.) in a jam-packed alert center, downtown residents and business owners complained, sometimes angrily, to representatives of the Veterans Administration that their proposal to open a drop-in clinic in the former Cook Jeep showroom on Main Street would bring new homeless people to the neighborhood, some made violent by mental illness, and ruin the neighborhood's delicate recovery. By a show of hands, 40 people in the 100-plus crowd at the Downtown Neighborhood Association meeting at 500 21st and said they opposed the clinic; 10 said they supported it.
All who spoke stressed that they weren't opposed to the veterans getting help, but said that the Main Street location wasn't appropriate, and they were angry that the neighborhood hadn't been first approached by the VA before it entered into the lease. DNA board member Jill Judy called the VA's decision to move into the Cook Jeep spot "a flagrant misuse of power."
So it was a bit surprising that DNA president Tony Curtis had to vote to break a 5-5 tie in the board's action expressing the neighborhood's opinion on the clinic. He voted no, along with Jennifer Mitchem, Tiffany Kell, Jill Judy, Jim Weirdsma and Maggie Hawkins. Voting in favor of the clinic: Kathy Wells, Matilda Luovering, Valerie Abrams, Chuck Heinbockel and Richard Ball. Curtis said he'd received 200 calls from people opposing the clinic.
Downtowners asked repeatedly whether anything could be done to stop the clinic, now that the VA has signed a five-year contract to lease the property from Oklahoma company SI Property Investments. The answer from a VA rep at the meeting: maybe. However, after all the red tape is gone through, the government might have to pay a penalty to the lessor five times the price of one year's lease, or 5 times $189,000.
The meeting — attended by Congressman Tim Griffin, Mayor Mark Stodola and a representative from Sen. John Boozman's office spoke — opened with short presentations by VA representatives to clear up what they said are myths about the clinic. Dr. Tina McClain said the clinic, currently operating at 2nd and Ringo, is not a homeless shelter and not a soup kitchen. She said that only veterans that agree to work with caseworkers may get services. Its goal is to provide health services to veterans and help them find jobs and housing. No pharmaceuticals are kept or dispensed at the clinic; vets must go to the VA to fill their prescriptions. There is a police officer on staff, and government vehicles to transport patients to wherever they need to go when the clinic closes.
About the fact that there is a liquor store nearby the Main Street location, a point made by Stodola and several in the audience: Dr. McClain said that if she had her druthers, no, she wouldn't operate a clinic by liquor store. But the fact is that there are liquor stores everywhere, and noted that there is an AA chapter near the location. She became emotional when she said that veterans help each other. "It touches your heart. If they see somebody in need crossing the street [to buy liquor] they will grab their arm" and keep them away.
Frank Smith, an Army veteran who served in Germany, talked to the group about how the clinic had helped him with a substance abuse problem, worked with him to get into school, helped him work out fine repayments and so forth. He said he'd been clean since April and was saving his earnings.
But a doctor in the audience said she'd had experience treating veterans with psychiatric problems and had been bitten, urinated on, had feces thrown at her and had been purposely been stuck with needles by such patients. Allowing a clinic that treats such patients in the Quapaw Quarter neighborhood was an "unnecessary risk."
Joe Fox, who owns Community Bakery across I-630 from the old Cook Jeep facility, said he's dealt with the homeless for years and said he'd like the VA clinic to stay open during business hours so that when he has to ask a customer to leave, they can go to the clinic.
Along with safety concerns, economic ones were raised as well. One woman said she'd been looking at property on Main for a small business but was no longer, thanks to the announcement of the clinic.
In his remarks, Stodola said the city would be glad to work with the VA to find another place; he said the fact that the VA hadn't planned to open until 2013 meant there was time to continue a search for a new place.
But Dr. Estella Morris, who heads up the VA's homeless program, said the VA had been trying for years to find new space for the clinic and had run into opposition from the city every time. That's why VA hospital administrators directed the clinic to go the formal route this time: To put out advertisements in the newspaper seeking proposals from interested property owners. (Two were made; the other proposal, from the owners of the Donaghey Building, was rejected). Stodola, criticized for not being on top of the VA's move, griped that "An RFP is not the same as going out and finding a location" with the city's knowledge. Dr. Margie Scott, VA chief of staff, apologized to Stodola for not meeting with him about the RFP.
Onie Irvine, with S.I. Property Investments, said the company, which manages several VA clinics, would work closely with neighbors and would make the clinic a beautiful, safe place. "We do not take this lightly," she said.
McClain said afterward that she wasn't surprised by the sometimes hostile questioning, but she was surprised by the mayor's statement that no one from the VA had attended a Wednesday meeting of the city's Homeless Coalition. The mayor said earlier this week that the coalition had been disbanded and would be restructured.
CLARIFICATION: I learned this morning that the group that met Wednesday was the Homeless Coalition (service providers), not the city's Homeless Commission, which is inactive.
The VA representatives said they would be glad to be part of task force to work with the DNA and the city to find a solution, but it appears they hope to win the hearts and minds of the QQ, rather than start the process over again to find a new home.