Columns » Max Brantley

On this rock ...



Little Rock over the years has found itself cast as one of the meanest cities in America. Why? It has too often elevated image over humane treatment of the homeless.

City officials hated the sight of street people sleeping in Riverfront Park and panhandling in the River Market neighborhood and tried repeatedly to remove them. The tall glass windows of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce — its salary men subsidized by city tax dollars to oppose social welfare of all sorts — afforded an all-too-clear view of the less fortunate as they trudged from camping spots to soup kitchens. It must be unsettling when you're proposing fat corporate welfare checks to visiting industrialists to gaze through the looking glass at grubby hands stuck out for coins for a meal or, yes, a bottle of beer.

So, for his work in the interests of the homeless, I'll cut Mayor Mark Stodola a little slack this week. The first term of the strong mayor has been mostly a bust — there's precious little to show for our $160,000 in mayoral salary except increased advocacy for corporate interests. Stagnant tax revenues and population argue against the theory that there's benefit in coddling the upper classes.

And then there's the strong mayor's control of city commission appointments. It certainly hasn't brought high accounting standards to Little Rock National Airport operations. (It did bring Stodola some fine French dining on public money in Paris.)

But give Stodola this: He has continued to work to find a permanent location for a day center for the homeless — a place for meals, rudimentary health services and other assistance that might even set some homeless people back on the path to productive lives. It's been a long and awkward search. Stodola's secrecy about the process has only spurred suspicion. When at last he landed on a potential site recently, the world managed to find out about it before he'd told the city director from the affected ward, Erma Hendrix, or any other city director.

Stodola thinks a former road machinery dealership on East Ninth Street in the gritty, industrialized East End is a good location. Foot traffic will undoubtedly pass through some small residential neighborhoods nearby and the commercial neighbors aren't excited about the center either. No one ever is. (North Little Rock, to its credit, has been commendably peaceful about offering temporary space for the center.) Short of an Alcatraz-like center surrounded by open water, I can't think of a spot in the city that would throw a housewarming party for a homeless center.

But Director Hendrix won the hostility sweepstakes. She questioned why people were so concerned about the homeless in the first place. They are not taxpayers, she said. They are not truly residents of the city. Such coldness is the kind of thing that won Little Rock a shameful national reputation. Stodola's push for a warmer solution, even at some personal political cost, is one of the few bright spots of his tenure.

The homeless may not be taxpayers currently. But they could be. They are also — need we remind Director Hendrix? — human beings. Many homeless people have families with children. Many of them, veterans particularly, are entitled to services they may have not claimed.

Little Rock can take these strangers in. It can feed them. It can clothe them. Or it can shout from behind a chained door, "Be gone!" If the latter, we deserve to be called the meanest city in America. It is past time to conclude the long search for shelter. Winter is upon us.

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