NO EASY ANSWERS: (left to right) Moderator Paul Kelly poses questions to candidates Tolliver, Kurrus and Sabin.
Three of Little Rock's five mayoral candidates addressed a crowded room of advocates for the homeless and others on Wednesday morning at the Willie L. Hinton Neighborhood Resource Center on 12th Street. Baker Kurrus, Warwick Sabin
and Vincent Tolliver
answered questions from moderator Paul Kelly on topics ranging from substance abuse treatment to the city's approach to panhandling. Candidates Frank Scott
and Glen Schwarz
did not attend.
Much of the time, Kurrus and Sabin — who are seen as two of the three realistic contenders in the race, along with Scott — both spoke in generalities about the need for city government to better systematize the delivery of services for people experiencing homelessness. But they diverged on a few key issues, including public transportation and the question of providing services to people living in camps.
The most notable differences were more narrative than substantive. Kurrus, a corporate lawyer and businessman
who was briefly tapped by the state to run the Little Rock School District
, emphasized his experience running large organizations and repairing their internal problems. The city must develop a "systemic approach" to homeless issues, he said; if services aren't better integrated, desperate people bounce from one program to another "like a ping pong ball in an empty barrel." But, he also said the city has little capacity to expand services, due to budget constraints. Sabin, a Democratic state legislator representing a progressive House district centered on Hillcrest,
agreed that the city needed to better coordinate its programs. However, he said city government could yet play a major role in filling gaps and spoke of his "real willingness to challenge the powers that be" in making that happen. He spoke little of fiscal constraints.
Tolliver, a community activist, presented himself as the "people first" candidate. Though a long shot in the race, he suggested more concrete ideas than his rivals, including a "24-hour, 7-day
-a-week homeless facility in downtown Little Rock that offers wraparound services." (He did not offer a funding mechanism.)
Asked about his plan for Little Rock to provide more resources for behavioral health and substance abuse, Kurrus essentially said more city resources would not be forthcoming without economic growth. "We have to grow and revitalize and get more sales tax revenue and property tax revenue," he said.
"We’ve got about $210 million in operating money, and it’s all spoken for," Kurrus said. Programs such as the city's day center, Jericho Way, does great things, he said, but "I don’t have a big bag of money and Santa Claus is not on the way. The city has to grow its funding so we all get more. That’s the key. So don’t look at the current budget and say ’Where do we pinch off a little bit and have some money to do some of the things we need?’" Much of the blame, he told the assembled advocates, lies with state government "doing things policywise that land on your heads," such as recent cuts
Sabin also said the city needed to better connect people to its existing services. "We have day treatment facilities available ... [and] oftentimes people aren’t aware of it, don’t have transportation to it," he said. But, he added, the mayor can advocate for better public policy at the state and federal levels.
"We need a mayor who’s conveying this message to our legislature, to our governor," Sabin said. "The city can’t fund all of it by itself, but the city certainly can be a much stronger partner and much stronger advocate."
The clearest policy contrast between Sabin and Kurrus was perhaps on the issue of transportation. When Kelly asked the candidates how they proposed helping "citizens in transition" physically get to work, Sabin spoke emphatically of the need to enhance public transit.
Mobility, he said, is "a critical issue for the city in terms of freedom and opportunity and equity ... .
Right now, quite frankly, you really have to own a car to get around the city of Little Rock, and that is so limiting in so many different ways. In essence, it’s a tax." That negatively affects people who don't wish to drive, from millennials to seniors, Sabin said, along with those who can't, such as the disabled or people unable to afford a vehicle. Making the city livable for those groups "means investing in our public transportation system. … It also means making sure that we have sidewalks in every part of our city," Sabin said.
Tolliver said Rock Region Metro, the regional transit authority, should reimagine its routes. "I don’t think if you live in West Little Rock and you’re trying to get to Southwest you need to go all the way downtown to transfer. I want a system that makes sense," he said. More free bus passes should be provided to those who need them, he said.
Kurrus pushed back against such ideas, saying major improvements to Rock Region Metro required "a much different population distribution in our city" and greater density than now exists in Little Rock. When he ran a business, he said, it would often hire people reentering society from prison, and transportation was frequently a problem. "We’d find a thousand dollar Subaru, and it was dependable and we’d sell it to somebody for next to nothing, and those people became some of our best employees," he said.
But Kurrus added, "I’m not so sure that there’s a public response" to such transportation problems. Getting people to work might entail establishing dedicated bus routes servicing certain large employers and making better use of CareLink, he acknowledged, but not an overhaul of the public transit system.
Kelly also asked the panel whether the city's resources would be better utilized to provide services in homeless camps or to focus on moving that population into supportive housing. Kurrus said he'd spoken to advocates on both sides of the issue but came down on the side of moving away from camps.
"Don’t misunderstand me; I don't want to be dispassionate or uncaring about it, but the long-term plan has to be a system where people get a safe, secure place where they can get mental health services," he said. "No, I don’t think long-term we ought to ever concede that people have to lose their dignity by living outdoors. ... I think we can do better, and I’ll strive for more."
Sabin disagreed. "I just have to say, I don’t think that’s an either/or question. … I don't think there’s such a thing as being able to social engineer some result that is one particular person’s idea of perfection," he said.
"For me, it’s important for the city ultimately to meet people where they are. And yes, we want to help provide the transitional and permanent housing for those who can take advantage of it … [but] some people will choose to live outdoors, and that’s their idea of dignity, and that’s OK. I want to make sure that everyone in our city understands that they’re valued as a human being, that they are welcome in this city," he said.
Tolliver said his first priority would be to better train first responders to identify and respond to people with mental illnesses.
The crowd applauded Kurrus once,
when he choked up as he responded to a question about children experiencing homelessness. He saw that problem firsthand when he was superintendent, he said. "It's enormous, and it lands in the laps of teachers, educators and the people in this room … LRSD literally had thousands of homeless kids," he said. "In a country as rich as ours, how come we can’t find a place for kids? … We ought to be ashamed of ourselves." He again faulted state government for instituting cuts that end up hurting poor families.
Sabin's narrative was perhaps a clearer fit for this room of homeless advocates, but his message was delivered with a studied caution. He drew applause only toward the conclusion of the panel,
when he spoke passionately again of the need for better public transit and framed his campaign as a challenge to the status quo.
"I'm willing to talk about the fact that we give $300,000 a year to the Chamber of Commerce with absolutely no accountability or transparency for how they spend the money. ... You need leadership that’s fearless," Sabin said. He noted that he could have stayed in the state legislature for many more terms and likely wouldn't have drawn an opponent in his district. But, he said, that's not why he entered public service. "I promise you that I didn’t spend all this time and effort to head over to city hall and just sit around and do nothing," Sabin said. "I want to make a change."