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Few complaints over veterans' center on Main in Little Rock

Two years after the planned move sparked controversy.

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Two years ago, the Veterans Administration's plan to move its Day Treatment Center for homeless veterans to a building at 1000 Main St. caused quite a stir. Downtown residents, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Congressman Tim Griffin and Mayor Mark Stodola protested that the move, from a cramped building on Second Street, had been sprung on them, though the VA had advertised in the newspaper its desire to purchase property to house the center. The newspaper called it "unacceptable" that the VA had bought the property without consulting the community. Griffin asked the VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to suspend the move and seek more input from neighbors and local leaders. Stodola called the idea to place the drop-in clinic across the street from a liquor store in business at 10th and Main was "idiotic," and hurried up an ordinance to require conditional use permits for businesses that address for substance abuse or mental health issues. (As it turned out, the ordinance as drafted did not apply to the VA center.)

The Downtown Neighborhood Association, after a three-hour meeting that verged on ugly as residents expressed their fears of mentally ill vets wandering the neighborhood, loitering in businesses, buying booze and scaring children walking to school, voted not to support the move.

The VA apologized to the mayor for not notifying him personally. Shinseki wrote Griffin that the VA had followed the law and he hoped that communication between the VA and the community would improve. The Day Treatment Center went ahead.

In March 2013, the VA moved in to the spacious, 12,000-square-foot building, a revamped former Jeep dealership that quadrupled the size of the treatment center at 1101 2nd St. In the past year, 2,100 vets, about 600 of them new, have used the center. (Many are repeat clients who need several tries to get back on track, and even those who have found homes still have access to the center's medical and life skills programs.)

Veterans and staff no longer have to share a single bathroom; no longer do vets seeking to get off the streets and into jobs have use of only "one pitiful shower," Dr. Estella L. Morris, director of the treatment center, said. The new center has separate showers and bathrooms for both men and women clients as well as staff. The veterans no longer have to eat their meals in three 20-minute shifts, 12 at a time; now there's one shift, serving breakfast and lunch to up to 28 clients. Now there are rooms for social work staff and the many programs offered the vets, classes the vets must sign up for and attend to be fed and helped to end their life on the streets. Now services that once were offered at three places — 1100 Second St., a 500-square-foot space across the street from 1100, and St. Francis House — are under one roof, and there is still space for more. The building can house a HUD-VASH (Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing) staff that has doubled, thanks to the VA's investment in the "Opening Doors" program to prevent end homelessness by 2015. A staff of 42 includes outreach workers who work with incarcerated veterans, previously not considered homeless and unprepared for the free world.

The Day Treatment Center is open to vets from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and staff shifts run to 7 p.m. to make sure all vets have a place to sleep at night. It runs shuttles to the North Little Rock and Little Rock VA hospitals every 30 minutes for vets with acute needs; the city provides shuttles to and from its Homeless Day Resource Center on Confederate Boulevard and various shelters. A psychiatrist sees vets on Tuesdays; there is an advanced practice nurse at the center weekdays.

The VA has been able to increase its staff because of its success, VA spokesman Miles Brown said, and "the fact that it's working" has made more federal dollars available to Little Rock's facility.

It may not work right away, but though Harold Jackson, 51, relapsed several times into drugs and homeless, he's been clean now for six years and is enrolled in occupational therapy classes at Pulaski Technical College. Jackson, a Navy vet, said he lapsed into drugs after several trips through the VA system because he could not bring himself to go to Alcoholics Anonymous or other programs for help to stay clean. "I thought I would be less than a man," he said, to talk to other men about his failings. But the last time he fell off the wagon, he had a "bad altercation" with his brother. "He had stole my drugs. I hurt him kind of bad. I messed up his leg. It was hard to tell my mom" that he'd hurt his brother fighting over dope, he said. "I called the VA and asked if they'd give me one more time." (The VA limits the times it will take a vet into its programs so they don't abuse the system.)

"These people have bent over backwards, man," Jackson said, nodding at Dr. Morris. "They spend more time with us than with their family."

The day a reporter met with Jackson, he had his granddaughter with him. He also has an 11-year-old daughter who lives with him. "It was always about me," Jackson said of his time on the street. Now it's about them.

Frank Smith, 50, an Army veteran who will have been straight for four years in April, spoke at the 2012 DNA meeting about the help the Day Treatment Center had given him to overcome a substance abuse problem and to work out a repayment schedule for fines he'd incurred. Today, Smith is involved in the VA's Project S.T.A.Y., a peer support group that helps vets stay clean and includes community volunteer work; he carries a notebook with his schedule for the day and has an apartment at the East Side Lofts. Smith said he went through the VA program four times, starting in 1995, before "the light came on for me." He nodded in the direction of Warehouse Liquor across the street. "Is that calling my name?" he asked. "No. I'm stronger now."

Inberjid Singh, who owns Warehouse Liquor, said he had not seen any difference in his business, new customers crossing the street from the center. He said he'd had the "occasional run-in" with panhandlers, but noted the business' proximity to the Stew Pot, a soup kitchen at 800 Scott St. in First Presbyterian Church.

But another downtown resident said there has been an increase in panhandling and homeless people along Main Street and "hanging out in the Bernice Gardens" at Daisy Bates and Main, though she could not say that the VA center was the source. She did say that veterans linger to smoke outside the center and she remains critical of the Veterans Administration for choosing to locate on Main Street in the midst of redevelopment efforts on south Main and nearby residential areas. (She declined to be quoted by name.)

But Joe Fox, who earlier had expressed fears the center's hours would bring homeless loiterers to his business, Community Bakery, before and after closing times, said that had not happened. He said there was the usual "coterie of panhandlers" but he didn't think they were veterans. His only complaint: He wished the VA had made the building and lot more aesthetically pleasing.

Kathy Wells, an officer with the Downtown Neighborhood Association in 2012 and until recently, said the vet center has fallen off the DNA radar. "It has not been a topic of discussion at monthly membership meetings," she said. She has attended the VA center's open monthly meetings to which the neighborhood is invited, and said that initially Warehouse Liquor's Singh had complained that his employees were being panhandled after work on their way to their cars. The vet center was responsive, Wells said, and director Morris asked the store to call the vet center whenever they were accosted so they could send people to check on it. If it's a veteran who is panhandling, the center wants to help. If it's not a veteran but someone claiming to be one — as Morris says is common — the center wants to know that as well. (Morris said she recently asked a man who was holding a sign outside a Dollar Tree store saying he was a vet and asking for money where he was getting his veteran services. He told her he was going to the Main Street center. She told him she was the director and she knew he was not. "You are misrepresenting yourself," she told the beggar, adding "the VA does not solicit funds." She said outreach workers at the Day Treatment Center have approached vet pretenders near the Day Treatment Center and the signs, if not the panhandlers, have gone away.)

Morris said the center enjoys good relationships with other institutions in the community, noting a program that the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Center has initiated to teach vets how to "cook smart and eat smart" on $10 a day, along with social skills like setting a table. "That is really good and the veterans enjoy it," Morris said. The Wolfe Street Center for alcoholics also allows the VA to use some of its parking.

Even Mayor Stodola has paid a call on the vet center, Morris said. "He wasn't a big fan of this move," Morris said, but he initiated the city shuttle to and from VA center to help it handle veterans who chose to leave rather than stay and work with center staff.

"We're making it work," Stodola said. "My initial objection had nothing to do with the owner, but the land use planning issue ... for long-term redevelopment purposes." He said none of the neighborhood people had come to him — with "one mild exception" — since the center opened. "I think Estella and her people are doing a good job trying to make sure that whatever concerns there are minimized," the mayor said. "They're doing God's work."

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