by Max Brantley
Bolstered by a thunderous blast against the Department of Veterans Affairs by the Democrat-Gazette editorial page this morning, U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, fresh off a mailer singing his praises of his support for veterans, has announced his opposition to going forward with relocation of a day drop-in center for veterans at 10th and Main.
He wants the site selection suspended so that alternatives can be considered and there can be more communication with the community.
Here's his letter to VA Secretary Shinseki. It focuses on insufficient notice by the VA to city officials on the new location, including a rule that prohibits the VA from revealing potential sites. (A page is also dated Jan. 5; surely the congressman didn't form this opinion before meeting with people and then file it today pre-cooked for a neighborhood meeting? UPDATE: Aide says it's a typo.)
Griffin has adopted Mayor Mark Stodola's talking points — the presence of a liquor store across the street and the city's many years of plans to establish a day center for homeless far removed from downtown, still a work in progress. The congressman doesn't say what distance he'd find unobjectionable between a veterans center and alcohol, but he does speak approvingly of the mayor's idea to put the veterans in with other homeless in a former Union Rescue Mission on Confederate Boulevard (about a four-block walk from malt liquor.) Wrote Griffin:
In addition to the Mayor’s suggested alternate location, there may be other locations that merit consideration. I believe that the most appropriate and best location could be identified with input from local residents, government officials, and community leaders in Little Rock, and I urge you to suspend the relocation of the Drop-In Day Treatment Center so that the VA can consult adequately with local stakeholders.
That process, if undertaken, would produce a procession of NIMBY speeches for the most part, but it also would extend things safely past the election season for Griffin.
I've asked Griffin's office if he's visited the 80-year-old rabbit warren of a dump that is the Union Rescue Mission, purchased last August by the city and undergoing a slow renovation to meet building codes. (UPDATE: An aide said he has.) It would be impossible to use for wheelchair vets because of multiple levels, currently without elevators. It would blend hard-core homeless with a veteran population that isn't always homeless or alcoholic, while removing the vets some distance from ready access to services they use downtown.
The existing VA center at 2nd and Ringo, outgrown, has been unfairly branded with activities associated in many cases with non-vet homeless who visit the nearby Salvation Army shelter. The vets deserve their own place, up to VA standards, not the jury-rigged rehab currently underway on Confederate (see jump for city account of work done so far). If the contract for 10th Main is suspended, it will likely carry a financial penalty for the VA. But Griffin has tested the wind and found the needs of veterans secondary to unhappy neighbors and the mayor.
The city's record on helping the homeless, however well-intentioned, has been slow and non-productive over many years. It has sent money to North Little Rock to operate a day center, which Mayor Pat Hays did without complaint. Whatever happens with the VA plans, they should not be harnessed to a city that has failed so long to deliver or be consigned to an after-thought of a building intentionally far removed from the center city. Until the mayor and Tim Griffin got involved, the VA was ready to move before the year was out into a carefully designed, well-equipped and expanded service center for vets with medical, education, legal and other services. The city is still fiddling. The city, by August, MAY be ready to occupy a small portion of the old Union Rescue Mission, but it would be months, maybe years, before plans could be drawn and work done to accommodate the VA in segregated space there. (And it would have to be segregated because VA money can't be used on other vets). Also, the Union Rescue Mission still has a lease on a significant part of the space.
It is simply dishonest for Stodola and Griffin to hold out the Union Rescue property as a viable alternative for the vets center. They deserve better. If Main isn't the answer, neither is Confederate Boulevard. And vets deserve better than a mayor and congressman who are effectively branding the entire population of United States military veterans served by these centers as drunken neighborhood nuisances.
A neighborhood meeting gets underway tonight at the neighborhood alert center on E. 21st. Should be lively.
A report from Asssistant City Manager Bryan Day on work at the Union Rescue Mission:
The following work has been accomplished
* Replaced 2 non compliant exit doors in downstairs sleeping area with 2 compliant fire rated doors with proper emergency exit hardware.
* Installed a 3rd compliant emergency exit door in basement sleeping area.
* Removed all non compliant electrical wiring from basement sleeping area and replaced and or installed in conduit.
* Installed emergency exit lighting in basement sleeping area for compliance with fire code requirements.
* Installed fire and smoke alarm system in basement sleeping area.
* Installed emergency exit lighting at all 3 emergency exit doors from basement sleeping area.
* Installed lighted emergency exit signage in basement sleeping area identifying all emergency exit locations.
The following materials have been purchased to be installed once roof has been replaced and electrical system upgraded
* 10 HVAC Systems
* 2 Commercial water heaters
* New exterior fire stair for North Building for 3rd and 2nd floor emergency egress(replaces deteriorated unit currently on site
* New hand, intermediate rails for interior staircase.
* New rear gate and fencing for courtyard area.
* Electrical service wire for rewire of building service panels.
* 2 handicap shower units
* Ceiling Tile
The following work will tentatively be awarded a contract within the next 2 weeks.
* Installation of new roof over south building
The following items will have a purchase order issued for purchase within the next 2 weeks and will then be bid for installation after receipt.
* New electrical service panels and switch gear for electrical system upgrade of entire building after installation of new roof.