On any given day inside the VA Drop-in Day Treatment Center — a single-story cinderblock building at Second and Ringo that serves homeless veterans — about two dozen men cram around a mammoth table, filling a tiny activities room. Knees bump, and those with early spring colds duck their heads, respectfully coughing into their hands. Plastic dividers separate the room from reception, but they do nothing to block the din.
The VA center desperately needs more space. Between the hours of 7:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., 22 social workers, three administrative staffers and 40 to 60 veterans wedge into a tight 3,000 square feet. Doors open partially before slamming into desks in closet-sized offices that serve multiple employees. VA workers often see individual clients in the same room, making confidentiality a long-abandoned concept. Meals are served in three shifts, supplies are stored off-site and expanded service plans, such as a primary care medical clinic, have been indefinitely shelved.
The VA center moved into its current building in 1996, with a staff of seven. Less than a decade later, VA officials were actively scouring the city's abandoned properties for a bigger space. In 2007 they came close to leasing the former Roy Rogers Auto Parts building across from the Salvation Army shelter on Markham Street. But the Capitol Zoning Commission, under pressure from Mayor Mark Stodola and the Downtown Neighborhood Partnership, opposed the move. In a letter to the Capitol Zoning Commission dated Oct. 24, 2007, Stodola wrote: "As you know, there is a renewed emphasis on residential and commercial development in this area, and I believe this facility will hamper continued investment along this corridor ... I hope the commission will reject this [zoning] application."
Last July the VA advertised its building search in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and in November signed a lease with Oklahoma-based SI Property Investments on the former Jeep dealership. It seemed perfect — the center fit the mixed-used zoning, it was located near center clientele and with nearly 10,000 square feet available, it offered space to spare. A downtown resident learned of the move from VA sources on Dec. 15 and posted the news on the Downtown Neighborhood Association (DNA) message board. Mayor Stodola found out two weeks later, from a DNA meeting agenda. In a Jan. 7 Associated Press article, he called the planned move "foolish," citing the harm it could do to efforts to revive Main Street. Second District Congressman Tim Griffin, normally a flag-waver, criticized the VA's purchase of the property without prior notification of downtown residents. Then, at a Jan. 12 DNA meeting, attended by at least 100 people, the DNA board voted, 6 to 5, to oppose the relocation. Businesses feared the center's homeless clients would loiter after the early afternoon closing time.
In early February, the city hastily drafted a conditional use permit ordinance that may thwart the relocation altogether. If the VA were forced to break the lease, the government would be required to pay $945,000 plus legal fees to the property owner. The ordinance, which has yet to be voted on by the city board, would subject certain intended uses to public hearings, even if they fall within acceptable zoning. The stalled vote is one of several city tactics to delay the building permit, applied for five weeks ago by property owner SI Property Investments. SI was told the permit would be issued in 10 days, said Debby Meece, a VA spokesperson.
The center's clients are confused and dismayed by the resistance. In the activity room, they discussed the matter before a weekly writing class. "I don't believe it's the residents. I believe it's someone with money that's just using the residents as an excuse. It's not like it's the safest place in Little Rock, anyway," said one vet, a trim man in a plaid shirt, just as Jennifer Miller, the young jeans and fleece-clad instructor slipped into the room.
She dropped a shoulder bag on the floor. "What did I come in on?"
"We were talking about writing a letter about the opposition that the mayor is giving us," veteran Jerry Robertson told her.
As Miller distributed paper and pens, she suggested that the group start a blog. "You can post some of what you're writing in class, about your experiences, your thoughts on this move and other things. We have these people who aren't seeing you as people, and they're scared. If we put your stories on a blog and people start hearing what you've done, maybe they wouldn't be so scared."
"But what if someone posted something that shot us in the foot? I'm interested in getting my voice out, but I want to do it responsibly so we don't end up looking like what they say we are, a bunch of crazy vets," Robertson said.
"I don't want to censor y'all," said Miller. "But if there's something weird, then we'll talk about it ... Okay, for a warm-up exercise, write 10 things you want to say to these folks that oppose the new drop-in center. And if you want to say 'bite me,' that works." She grinned, and her pupils set to work.
But Robertson was experiencing a bit of writer's block. He stared at the blank page, chin in hand. "Who are we talking to? I'm not even sure who's mad at us," he muttered.
"We are primarily a medical facility," said Estella Morris, director of the VA day treatment center. "About 80 percent of our clients have or have had substance abuse problems. All of them are homeless, have been homeless or are in danger of becoming homeless." The official statistics are that 64 percent currently struggle with substance abuse and 88 percent are homeless at intake, although, according to Morris, the majority of clients are placed in transitional housing or residential treatment within a few weeks. Other stats: 91 percent of the center's clients are male; 72 percent are between the ages of 45 and 64, and 57 percent are black. "But the number of female vets we serve is growing, particularly with these people returning from Iraq and Afghanistan," said Morris. At nine percent, Little Rock's center serves more females than any comparable operation in America.
Veterans seeking aid must accept the center's terms — primarily, that means everything must be earned. "We work with our clients through individual case management, to help them save money and maintain budgeting skills, or whatever they need to stay in housing and prevent relapse. It's all about helping them identify a service plan, so they can reach their goals," Morris explained. "If you want breakfast, you have to go to group. We are not a soup kitchen. No one gets to sit around and do nothing."
Clients earn points for attending therapy, meeting with case workers and completing tasks. They cash in points for things like portable radios or packaged snacks. Some clients work for minimum wage, doing maintenance, reception or other jobs at John L. McClellan Memorial Veterans Hospital. Others are on incentive therapy tracks, which combine job searching with volunteer service, such as accompanying disabled veterans to appointments.
To Morris, success means helping a client achieve reliable income, permanent housing and prolonged sobriety, such as in the case of Anthony Stallcup. A 55-year-old Little Rock native and Navy veteran with a trimmed salt-and-pepper goatee, Stallcup began drinking heavily as a teen-ager. He spent two years living on a ship, where alcohol was plentiful, even for the under-aged. He was discharged in 1975. In 1996, he started sleeping on the streets to avoid burdening his family any longer. He has been coming to the VA center off and on since 1998, but became a regular client last year.
"What it was, I finally decided to commit to sobriety," Stallcup said. "Drop-in sent me to Wilbur Mills [a six-month treatment program in Searcy] ... I did 120 days residential, and then they helped me get an apartment. Now I pay my own rent with my pension." Stallcup has been clean since June 22, 2011. He attends a Narcotics Anonymous or an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting every day.
Among other clients, the center social workers oversee the cases of 141 veterans in residential treatment and 130 veterans in housing that the center helped procure. These numbers only represent current figures, since the center doesn't collect data on closed cases.
Despite her 2007 preview of the city's official position on an expanded VA day treatment center, Morris is flabbergasted by the extent of the opposition. "With the Roy Rogers building there was concern about our operating in that River Market/Union Station corridor, because of the image we want to present to tourists. The sad thing is, that building is still empty six years later. When you talk about damage to property values, is it better to have a building that you know is going to be kept up, that provides services to a population that has earned that right? Or is it better to have that building remain empty and be an eyesore?"
In addition to the DNA's concerns about increased loitering, littering and panhandling, much has also been made of the site's proximity to a couple of schools and to Warehouse Liquor. The Associated Press quoted Stodola as saying, "To take veterans who perhaps have alcohol and drug addictions and put them right across the street from the liquor store that has been a problem for us for years is just idiotic."
According to Lt. Terry Hastings, there is not a significant loitering problem outside the current center. In 2011 and 2012, the Little Rock police department filed 17 incident reports for the Second Street address. Fifteen were responses to a falsely triggered security alarm, one was non-police related and one was for an impounded vehicle.
But the opposition has been so vocal that the issue has captured the attention of national figures. On Feb. 23, Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida, who chairs the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, met with Rep. Griffin and local VA officials. In a press conference at McClellan Hospital, Miller said, "I have often heard this facility called one of the crown jewels inside the system." He didn't make any public statements about the Second Street VA day treatment center, but back in Washington he wrote a letter to Secretary of Veteran Affairs Eric Shinseki, questioning the VA's community engagement when choosing a new location. This followed a similar letter from Griffin to Shinseki. Shinseki's response was that the Central Arkansas VA followed laws and procedures, and they have his blessing to continue current relocation plans.
"I honestly think this is no different than 1957," said Morris. "I want to call Satchmo and say, 'Can you look up Ike up there, let him know that we've still got problems in Little Rock, and we need some help?' "
In referencing the unexpected support the Little Rock Nine received from apolitical jazz musician Louis Armstrong and the eventual involvement of former President Eisenhower in the Central High crisis, Morris betrayed both her current frustration and her understanding of the longstanding issues at play, some of which have nothing to do with neighborhood development.
It's an understanding that seems to elude Griffin. At the McClellan press conference, when asked about appearing to "push veterans to the outskirts of town," he responded defensively: "I am a veteran, and our first priority is veterans. I'm not trying to push anybody anywhere. ... There's a certain way that you go about doing things in conjunction with the community, and we are getting the facts to make sure that was followed. It's that simple. To conflate this with the issues you're talking about is just incorrect."
Morris disagrees. "We're told, 'Main Street is for the gentry.' Well, we have homeless veterans who have made it possible for the gentry to be here. ... People say, 'my kids need to walk there.' What is it you think? I haven't heard any news stories about homeless veterans attacking little kids. 'Well, I have to walk my dog down there' — what are those veterans going to do to your dog? ... I mean, where do they think we should be?"
As things stand now, the VA intends to relocate to 10th and Main in early 2013. The city's conditional use ordinance, twice tabled, is expected to come up again before the board in early April.
On March 1, the Brain Injury Association of Arkansas opened an office in the old Jeep building. A community welfare organization like the drop-in clinic, the BIA — whose board includes SI lawyer Drake Mann — believes the move could grandfather in the 10th and Main site under the proposed ordinance. After the BIA move, Stodola asked that the ordinance be withdrawn from consideration at the March 6 city board meeting, to see if the move would indeed grandfather in the clinic.
City Attorney Tom Carpenter told the Arkansas Times that the delay of the building permit isn't related to the proposed ordinance, but to "other issues [in the current plans] that haven't been resolved ... and don't comply with zoning requirements," such as parking and sidewalk width.
SI attorney Mann argues, however, that all zoning requirements have been met. At issue is how the property value is calculated, a detail that changes applicable zoning rules. Both SI and the city of Little Rock have had the property appraised separately. According to the owner's figures, the current plans are in compliance. According to the city's figures, they are not.
The former Jeep building is one of several VA properties that SI Property Investments owns. The company is constructing a medical clinic in Hot Springs, which will be its eighth VA property and the fourth in Arkansas. "We're quite surprised. We've never had anything but support from other cities," said Onie Irvine, an owner of SI Property Investments.
Meanwhile, the staff at the Drop-in Center keeps dreaming big. In addition to the primary care clinic, their wish list includes backpack storage, space for families, separate facilities for men and women, an art therapy studio and multiple therapy rooms. "Right now we only have space for one group, so if this group is not for you, too bad. We want to be able to offer a PTSD combat group at the same time that we have, maybe, a military sexual trauma group," said Dr. Tina McClain, chief of mental health services for the Central Arkansas VA.
Their clients have dreams too. "I got more days behind me than I do in front of me. My kids are grown. I don't have the relationship I wanted to have with them. Everybody's probably just sitting around waiting for the other shoe to drop, but hopefully I'll keep my shoes on today," Stallcup said.