by Max Brantley
Kathy Wells, a Quapaw Quarter resident, former head of the Downtown Neighborhood Association and president of the Coalition of Little Rock Neighborhoods, explains why she voted in favor of relocation of a VA day drop-in center for military veterans at 10th and Main Street. The DNA Board split narrowly against the move, 6-5 Thursday night.
Wells, in addition to living in the QQA, owns a small apartment building on Scott Street, about one block from the abandoned car dealership proposed as a new home for a center that provides medical, counseling, vocational, educational, legal and other services to military veterans.
It's a long explanation. It's thoughtful. It speaks of her experience in working with the homeless and first-hand visits to the existing vet center. She knows whereof she speaks of the VA's record of delivering quality services to people the country claims to honor and the city's record of delivering talk but little action.
She illustrates with facts why public officials — pandering to legitimate concerns — have sold a misleading notion that all veterans in need of services are drunken bums and psychopaths. Kathy might not change anybody's mind, but she should shame the demagogues, if they had any.
CC: Mayor Mark Stodola and U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin.
Patrick Cowan wanted to know why this Main St. location was proposed for the Vet Ctr., and why I cast a vote in support of this location. A lot of this will be a repeat of earlier postings, so please, bear with me.
What I haven’t said before is that the liquor-store proximity was not a valid issue, in my opinion, so I gave this no weight. The Wolfe St. Fdn. Program for alcoholics is at Louisiana and 10th, a block from that same store, and it backs up to the site where this Ctr. would go. That’s been in existence for decades, and operating here more than a year, and if those professionals and ex-alcoholics can succeed that close to liquor, so can this Ctr.
My family operates a fourplex at 1015 Scott, so that property would face any added risk from the Ctr. if it moved to Main St., along with the neighbors. In fact, there is risk today, because homeless people sit on our retaining wall and party, and become a nuisance right now. This is one attempt to move some off our wall.
This outpost of the VA agency of the federal government was located where the homeless congregate. It’s been in downtown LR since 1987. It has been at Ringo and Second for many years — so near a concentration of the homeless it’s around the corner from the shelter run by the Salvation Army.
Many homeless persons come to the Stewpot at First Presbyterian Church at Eighth & Scott St. They come early, and linger afterward nearby. So a Main & 10th location would, again, place the Vet Ctr. close to an existing provider of services to the homeless.
Any retail business goes where it expects to get its customers. This Ctr. takes the same approach. The homeless are there already.
There are nuisance problems; some commit crimes; some are dangerous to themselves and/or others. My goal, and that of the DNA Neighborhoods Plan for the Future, is to get the homeless off our streets the right way: into services that help to restore them to a normal life, with a job, a place to live, friends and family.
This Ctr. does good work in my opinion, and my civic work has brought me knowledge of its workings for years. I have supported St. Francis House for decades, as a social-welfare arm of my Episcopal church. I have supported Our House shelter for the working homeless for decades, which was founded by members of my church, among others. currently I’m serving a second term on that Board of Directors.
A lot of homeless service providers will speak to me in confidence about the value of this agency staff and its achievements. They compliment this Ctr. and its staff.
The homeless are here today. I want them off our streets, as does everyone else I know in this debate. For the sake of their well-being, and for the sake of the well-being of our efforts to revitalize our neighborhood. The Vet Ctr. does get veterans who are homeless off the streets, and into help, so it has my support.
I am persuaded the shift off the streets as the Ctr. succeeded would offset any added homeless walking our streets; concede the numbers on the streets could go up. That’s very hard to predict, so fluid is this population, and so close are others helping the homeless nearby already. The day the Stewpot relocates to the city Day Treatment Ctr., as church leaders offered over the years, the street population likely would go down. Let’s take the different factors into consideration.
Nobody can tell by looking whether someone is a veteran, so that makes it impossible to assign blame, generally, when there is a nuisance incident involving homeless persons. That’s taught me to be very cautious in blaming vets for what happened to someone once. I respect the bad times my neighbors described in encounters with homeless veterans in medical settings. I was wary of assuming what happened in those emergency rooms and hospital wards was prologue to what happens at this Ctr.
When I called on the folks around Second and Ringo earlier this week, I found another clinic operating next door to the Ctr., the LR Chiropractic Clinic, and I spoke with Dr. Richard Riley, the owner of many years. His comments were critical and complimentary, and both were posted. He encounters nuisance behavior; he has not been attacked himself, nor those in his clinic. There was a carjacking, once, of a patient’s car, which he attributed to some homeless person. That led me to give less weight to speculations from business owners near Main & 10th that there likely would be injuries to customers and staff. That sort of personal attack is not happening today, so I would not assume it would occur at the next location.
I was interested to learn one vet bought a used laptop from the computer repair service close by. That adds weight to my interest in viewing the homeless as potential assets to our redevelopment. We want to attract people to live and work downtown. The Ctr. puts vets into jobs that enable that vet to provide housing for themselves — which could be downtown.
My friends and neighbors who opposed the Main St. location for this Ctr. recalled bad experiences encountering the homeless in general, or homeless vets in particular, and those certainly create a wary eye, as someone considers the next action involving the homeless. Experience in life enables us to weigh what we do in the light of what has happened in our past, and that is as it should be.
However, a bad experience, or a good one, should not automatically decide a position on the next case to be decided. Review an issue with caution, yes; research specifics of the current case, always.
The opponents did not make their case successfully because none cited any experiences with this Ctr. and its staff. One did go by before the opening hour, and saw folks waiting in line. That happens other places too, so that is no bar to a Ctr. on Main. Those lines would vanish on Main, behind a fence, to meet neighborhood desires, staff made clear.
Go and see for yourself is best. Ask the neighbors what they think is next best.
When I toured this Ctr. on a week ago, I took with me the eyes, ears and nose of someone who has been in shelters before, and in clinics before, and who has heard happy talk from public employees and officials at all levels since 1968. My first job was working for a newspaper as a reporter. That trained me to look up the public record for as many facts as possible.
When I talked to the neighbors, that experience aided my work. Criticism as well as praise was heard, and reported.
What I found is what I wrote about and posted to all DNA email news subscribers. I urged all to take advantage of the invitation to tour the Ctr., and posted their number. Here it is again: 257-4405. The welcome mat still is out. They still are open for business, Monday through Friday.
One opponent asked if residents could call the Ctr. to come a dozen blocks away to haul off the homeless person banging on the door of their house for admission, making a loud noise, and a public nuisance. If that’s a veteran, that is exactly what the Outreach staff of the Ctr. does when called. That’s their job. I met the newest employee on staff last week, and she was a new Outreach worker.
Vets are 30 percent of the homeless population nationally, and the last LR census tallied 19 percent veterans in our community homeless count. This Ctr. is getting folks off the street, and sending Outreach workers to recruit them, and vans as well as cars to take them for appointments to cure ills, get jobs, find housing, etc.
Sadly, City Hall has not done this. LR does put money into a Day Treatment Ctr. operating at 1021 E. Washington in North Little Rock, but there’s no city outreach workers, and no city homeless transportation at present. There was city payment for a circuit to be run by a shelter van, according to Jimmy Pritchett, city homeless coordinator, until squabbles among riders occurred, and could not be quelled. The city solved that problem by giving up.
Actions speak louder than words to me. This Ctr. does act. It does get help to vets who do get jobs and their own homes.
So far, city officials have not fulfilled promises and policies in the official 10-year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness.
This is hard work. It does take years, often, in a single case. It will take decades to shift a population of the homeless off the streets, where many have settled for an existence, limited though it is. I’ll support those who are doing what they say they will do.