One of the painful realities of living and working in a city the size of Little Rock is that you're constantly reminded of how thin the line between being middle class and being homeless can be. If you care enough to look for them, the homeless are everywhere, and more of us than would probably care to admit it are one paycheck, one long hospital stay, one divorce, one eviction or one mental health issue away from joining them.
One of the homeless in Little Rock is Billy, a 20-something man who asked us to conceal his identity because he fears it might exclude him from certain services, including the ability to sell plasma, one of his only sources of income. Some of the plasma centers will not accept donations from those who admit to being homeless, he said.
"[Homelessness] opens you up to a lot of diseases," Billy said. "Just the environment you're in is a lot more unhealthy."
Originally from Hot Springs, Billy said he's had mental health issues since childhood. He wound up homeless in Hot Springs after going off his medication. After getting back on his meds and seeking public housing, he was placed in an apartment in Little Rock, only to be evicted at the beginning of November after going off his medication again.
"I had that apartment for a while, but I got off of my medication and had multiple suicide attempts," he said. "I couldn't even get out of bed or do anything to help myself. I couldn't even move around. I had to go to the mental hospital, and I lapsed on my rent payment while I was in the hospital, and so I got evicted."
Since then, Billy has been homeless. He said that being homeless is not as bad as most people think, but it can be dangerous, especially if you're naive or too trusting. Some resort to prostitution, drug dealing or addiction. Hopelessness can set in after awhile, he said, and that can lead to other problems.
"There are people who have already given up on life before they were homeless," he said. "Being homeless may exacerbate that in some way, or amplify aspects of it into their social interactions. But the majority of [homeless] people you meet are really upbeat. It's just a temporary thing. ... It's something out of their control, they don't fret needlessly about it. They don't accept it, but they shoulder their burden with grace and humility. They're just down on their luck."
Most homeless shelters, Billy said, allow people to stay free for a certain number of days — usually 10 to 15 — providing food, shelter, showers and other help. After those days are used up, he said, the shelter where he stays costs $4 per day.
"You can go that route, if you can get money," he said. "With the cold weather, if it's 42 degrees or below, you can stay in the shelter for free after your 10 days for that month are used up."
Billy describes himself as "pansexual." He learned about Lucie's Place, a nonprofit that focuses its services on the LGBT community, from another homeless person who had received assistance from the charity. He submitted some information about himself and his needs, he said, and now Lucie's Place helps him with transportation and phone access, helping him get to doctor's appointments so he can stay on his mental health medication, and putting minutes on his cell phone after a glitch wiped out all his minutes. To a homeless person, a basic cell phone can be a crucial lifeline, helping him find shelter, jobs and assistance.
"That's one of the biggest issues I ran into: Everything is done either online or over the phone, and a lot of homeless people don't have access to phones or the Internet except at the library," he said. "There are places like Jericho where they have a public phone, but it's not a number you can be reached at any time, so it kind of closes the door to a lot of possibilities.
Billy said that volunteering with or spreading the word about a nonprofit like Lucie's Place can sometimes be just as valuable as money. If you don't have the time to volunteer or the money to donate, he said, be an intermediary, bringing a charity for the homeless to the attention of someone who does have those things. Educate yourself about the issues, and then do something to change what you don't agree with. A lot of people, he said, are just apathetic.
"To me, apathy is the opposite of empathy," he said. "You can't really be apathetic about something if you understand at least a little something about it. There's a lot of people who help the homeless, so I think there's a lot of goodwill out there."
Penelope Poppers, the co-founder and executive director of Lucie's Place, said that she first became aware of the link between being LGBT and homelessness while working with a charity called "Food Not Bombs" in about 2010. She was serving food under a bridge in downtown Little Rock, she said, when she realized something. "At some point, I looked around under the bridge and realized that more than half the people there had come out to me as LGBT," she said. "Statistically, that shouldn't be true, so I did more research and discovered this nationwide trend of LGBT people being disproportionately represented in the homeless community."
The following year, Poppers helped start Lucie's Place, a group that provides assistance and outreach to homeless people who are also LGBT. It's named after Lucille Hamilton, a transgender woman who died in 2009. Hamilton's mother is on the board of Lucie's Place. The group received nonprofit status in 2012.
The original goal was to open a shelter for LGBT young adults aged 18-25. Funding for that shelter is still coming together, but Lucie's Place isn't waiting, providing outreach and assistance to homeless LGBT people, including transportation, phones and help finding shelter.
Poppers said the typical story she hears from homeless young people is that they were kicked out of their parents' home after coming out as LGBT. "That's not to say that there's never been an LGBT homeless person who became homeless for another reason, but that's the overwhelming reason," Poppers said. About half the young people they help are from Arkansas, including many from rural areas of the state. "We've had a few people whose parents dropped them off in Little Rock and literally drove away, just because it was a convenient spot," she said. Once people become homeless, she said, it's very hard to get back in the mainstream.
Poppers said that the charity is still about $150,000 away from opening a permanent shelter. While the board is working toward that goal, Poppers said they plan to start discussions in January on putting services to the homeless front and center.
"At this point, we've stopped putting a timeline on [opening the shelter]," she said. "We can fill the place in two months when it does open, but now we're just waiting on that last round of funding."