UNDETERRED: Penelope Poppers at the Lucie's Place drop-in center in downtown LR.
, a Central Arkansas nonprofit serving homeless LGBTQ youth and young adults
, has withdrawn its request for a conditional use permit
for a seven-person transitional home in Little Rock's Leawood neighborhood after receiving an email from a neighbor vowing to make the home's location public knowledge.
executive director of Lucie's Place, said the nonprofit was midway through the sale and was prepared to close on the property as soon as it received the use permit from the city. Poppers said the group initially received some pushback from neighbors unhappy about the idea of a homeless shelter in their neighborhood but were able to allay those concerns by explaining its nature: a small residential setting for formerly homeless young people to develop life skills and get back on their feet. Lucie's Place already operates one four-bed transitional home in Central Little Rock
The grumbling came "before we had a chance to disseminate the correct information," Poppers said. "Once we did, the tide shifted. [Neighbors] understood we weren’t going to house a hundred people in this house, that there are rules and guidelines and all of that sort of stuff." Most opposition quieted, but then she received the following email (emphasis added):
I just received notification that there is some sort of halfway house or homeless shelter being proposed on Harmon [Drive], For LGBTQ persons who are at risk of being homeless. We are supposed to make clear if we oppose or support this idea.
We are completely and 100% opposed to this happening in our neighborhood! While I am completely in support of helping any who are in the situation of homelessness, and used to run a shelter myself in Houston, I am absolutely opposed to this happening in our residential neighborhood. We purchased a home in this neighborhood specifically because it was safe for our children. I do not want to live anywhere near a home like this. Since I have personal experience running a home like this, I am aware of the dangers involved, from a resident disclosing the location of the home, to a person tracking them down, to sneaking drugs in, to having a criminal background that's undisclosed, etc. This is a terrible idea for our neighborhood! If this passes, I will make it my personal mission to get all of our neighbors involved in disclosing the location of this home to anyone that we can and fighting the forward motion of this plan. This is absolutely unacceptable for this area. I've talked to all the neighbors within 500 feet of our house, and every single one of them feels the same way. We will all be attending the meeting to voice our opposition, but if this goes through we will disclose the location of this home to anyone who wants to know, and will fight this every step of the way. I cannot even believe that you would be considering opening a home of this nature in a residential neighborhood, that has many many children all around it. Not to mention elderly, Christians who completely oppose that lifestyle, etc. please take this idea and plant it elsewhere. I think it's a wonderful idea, just not in this neighborhood!
Poppers said the email didn't include contact information, but she was able to confirm that the sender of the email lived within "about a three-minute drive" from the house Lucie's Place hoped to purchase.
"It was pretty alarming to receive that … and we decided not to move into that house any longer, because it looked like that woman was going to do whatever she needed to do to make our lives miserable. That wasn’t a risk we could take with our residents," Poppers said.
"One of the important ways in which we protect the residents is not disclosing the location of our house. We emphasized in a document [to neighbors] that the privacy of the home is very important. So by saying she would make it her personal mission to disclose the location of the home ... she was threatening to take away one of the tools we have to ensure the safety and security of our residents. We very intentionally make our houses look just like other houses in the neighborhood. We don’t put up any signs or anything like that. ... That’s why that's a big deal: because it just can’t be widely known where our houses are. It makes us targets for vandalism, for people driving by, or any one of a million horrible things."
"Violent anti-LGBT stuff happens all the time in America, but specifically in the South," Poppers said. She pointed to the 2016 shooting attack
at a gay nightclub in Orlando which left 49 people dead.
Poppers said Lucie's Place had spent about $1,000 on the Leawood house, for a land survey, a home inspection and the application for the conditional use permit, which was submitted to the city zoning board. The next step would have been to send out certified letters to neighbors within 200 feet of the house, then have a public hearing. "We were planning a town hall at a local church, Trinity United Methodist. ... That was not a requirement, but we wanted everyone to have accurate information. But, we never got to that point. We cancelled that meeting after we got this email." Poppers said the group notified its realtor the day after making the decision to not move forward with the Leawood house. "They understood and were very nice about it."
Still, it was a disappointing development. "It’s a great neighborhood, and we did get a lot of support, so I don’t think this is any accurate representation of how most of the neighbors feel. I was excited to move into that neighborhood and start being involved with that neighborhood. It was in [City Director] Capi Peck’s ward, and we were in conversations with her. She was super supportive. [City Director] Kathy Webb was also super supportive. ... But this one thing was just too real for us to feel like we could move forward with it," Poppers said.
The group has already made an offer on another house, this one located in the Capitol Zoning District. That means the permit application and hearing process is "a little bit easier, but entirely different," Poppers said. "If this all goes well, we could open by early November."
Such a home is badly needed in the community, she said.
"We have one home open, which was given to us by The Van, another local organization ... an amazing gift. But it’s four beds; it's at capacity.
"We try not to build up any sort of waiting list for our homes, because they’re not short-term or emergency homes. The point is for folks to stay long enough to develop the life skills they need to be independent when the leave the house, so we don’t know when folks are going to move out … We don’t want to tell people, ‘We’ll put you on the waiting list and you’ll hear from us tomorrow, or maybe six months from now’ … We do have some folks in mind, but we don’t have a specific waiting list for that reason." Lucie's Place also continues to operate a drop-in day center for homeless LGBTQ young adults in downtown Little Rock. (It has recently doubled its square footage, Poppers said.)
Poppers said it was difficult to not stand her ground against the neighbor that sent the email. "Politically, I really wanted to challenge her on it, to show we weren’t listening to her threats. But I have to be able to separate my politics from the reality of my job, which is to protect the folks we work with and house. ... There’s nothing I could say or do that could make that better, because it was obvious to me she had a pretty clear understanding of what the house was going to be. She didn’t have any misinformation. She had read my post on the Nextdoor app. … So I didn’t feel there was anything we could add to that conversation that could sway her belief on the validity of LGBT lives."
Still, Poppers said, she decided to make the conflict public because she felt that "not talking about this sort of gives this person more power, because then the general public doesn’t see what our folks go through. ... I think it’s important for people to realize that being LGBT in Arkansas is still really hard, because we put up with this stuff every day. ... Just because LGBT folks can get married, a lot of people feel like that got rid of all LGBT-related oppression. But this sort of stuff still happens."
What made this particular threat credible, Poppers said, was the fact that it came from a neighbor. "If it hadn’t been from someone so close, we would have considered it, but I probably would have written it off." She emphasized again the importance of keeping the location of the house confidential. That's not just a feature of transitional housing for LGBT people: Most such homes either keep their locations private or have heightened security on site.
"It’s pretty common for our residents to be trying to get away from an abusive situation — a partner, a parent, a relative or friend. It’s pretty common for them to be somewhere where they’re not easily found, because they’re trying to get away from those situations, because they’re trying to rebuild their life." For that reason, "residents are not allowed to tell people where the house is. They're not allowed to have friends over. It's unfortunate, but that’s just the way it is. If they need to get picked dup, they walk a couple blocks away and get picked up there. … It’s not perfect, but [we do] anything we can do to protect the privacy of the home. It also encourages the neighbors to be supportive of the program [because] we really do blend into the rest of the neighborhood. People typically don’t want a house next door with a big sign, and people coming and going from the house all the time."
Lucie's Place has occasionally received negative or hostile communications in the past, though less than some might expect. (Poppers said, "we serve people in very specific situations of trauma and abuse, and so because of that I think people are a little more hesitant to spew hatred at us.") Yet this was the first instance of the group receiving a message threatening to take a specific action. "It's not the first hateful thing, but the first ‘I’m going to take action against you,'" she said.