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Panel: homelessness in Arkansas worsened by COVID and a lack of affordable housing

People experiencing homelessness during the February 2021 snow storm camped under an interstate ramp in downtown Little Rock.
People experiencing homelessness during the February 2021 snow storm camped under an interstate ramp in downtown Little Rock.

A lack of affordable housing and uncertainty during the COVID-19 pandemic has made it harder for homeless people in Arkansas to get back on their feet. That was one shared assessment of a panel that recently discussed the issue. Finding shelter is especially important during the cold months of winter.

The panelists, who assist people facing housing challenges, spoke during the most recent Issues That Matter, a series of public events hosted by KUAR, the Central Arkansas Library System and the Pulaski County chapter of the League of Women Voters.

Joining host Michael Hibblen, news director of KUAR, were:

  • Our House Executive Director Ben Goodwin
  • Jericho Way Director Mandy Davis
  • City of Little Rock Homeless Services Advocate Chris Porter

Highlights from the discussion included the need for an expanded voucher program, results of an eviction moratorium being lifted, conflicts with the U.S. Census recording homeless statistics, and how Arkansans can best help the homeless in the state.

The three panelists also discussed the burnout often felt by people who work to assist the homeless because of the ongoing challenges. Since the live discussion took place virtually on Nov. 18, Davis has announced her resignation from Jericho Way after six years in the position.

Chuck Levesque, president of Depaul USA which operates Jericho Way, praised Davis for her work, calling her a “public intellectual” regarding housing who used her voice to call for more effective services for the homeless.

“Mandy never lost sight of her social-work training. She threw herself into the most difficult cases. Her efforts were creative and intensive, working to place people in housing, and create conditions so these men and women could build more stable, dignified lives,” Levesque said.

The radio program can be listened to above, while an edited transcript of the discussion is below.

MICHAEL HIBBLEN: Maybe we can first start by having each of you introduce yourself, talk a little bit about your background, and what your organizations, or in the case of the city, what you guys do to assist the homeless population. There are very different missions among the different groups out there. 

Ben, why do we start with you, executive director of Our House, tell me a bit about yourself and what Our House works to accomplish.

BEN GOODWIN: Thank you, Michael. Thanks for shining a light on this topic and for inviting me to participate. I have been at Our House for 12 years now. I started as a part-time employee and have worked my way up to become the executive director as of 2017.

I'm motivated in this work because I recognize that any of us can experience struggle, can experience challenges in life through bad luck, through systemic issues, through many challenges that can confront any family, even families that feel stably housed. Things can happen and a community that wraps around a family or an individual that's going through a hard time is just really important. And so at Our House, I see our role as sort of being that community of support for people as they work hard to make a better life for themselves.

At Our House, our mission is to build a pathway out of homelessness and we specialize in serving families with children, but we also serve single adults and we try to help our clients to succeed in basically every aspect of their lives. We start with a real focus on finding employment. So finding a job, finding a good paying job, saving money from that job and then using that money to start putting the pieces together to move out of homelessness and into stable housing. We know that there's a lot more that goes into it, and so we offer other services, including childcare, including mental health services, workforce training, financial skill building and connections to all kinds of other resources in the community, including those offered by my partners who are on the call today.

The lifeblood of our work is the support from the community. This community, I think, is a very generous community, really cares about other people and that's what helps us do what we do. And one important part of the community is all the other great agencies out there that we work with. We really do, I think, work well together with Jericho Way, with the city of Little Rock, just a lot of partnerships there and with other agencies as well. So I look forward to talking more about that.

Mandy, tell us about Jericho Way and its mission, as well as how you came to be director of Jericho Way.

MANDY DAVIS: Again, kind of saying the same sentiment as Ben, thanks for having us and for shining an important light on this important topic. So I am the director of Jericho Way. Jericho Way is the city's only day resource center for people who are experiencing homelessness. It is operated by Depaul USA in partnership with the City of Little Rock and what we do there are two things: we address the crisis of homelessness with crisis services like meals, clothing, a medical clinic and so forth, and we assist people in exiting homelessness through our case management services. The last thing that we do is we also have started to build affordable housing throughout the city and our day center, I think, is unique in that way. We put a big emphasis on housing.

I've been at Jericho Way since May 4, 2015, right out of grad school. I became the executive director the same year Ben did in 2017. This is difficult work. I remember being in an event that Ben was at and he said that trauma often times causes homelessness and then homelessness causes trauma. I think that is something we all can agree with. I think that is something that we all, I know partners on the call, can agree with and I think that is what brings us together and makes us passionate about this topic. So again, thank you.

And indeed you mention trauma often does bring homelessness and we can talk more here about what this pandemic has caused. But now I want to bring in Chris Porter, who is the City of Little Rock's homeless services advocate. Chris, first tell me about your role, what you do with the city to help address the problem here.

CHRIS PORTER: Well, my role is I’m the homeless services advocate, and thanks again Michael for inviting me. Of course to my colleagues Ben and Mandy, it’s always a pleasure being in your company. At the city, my duties as homeless services advocate, there's no two or three things that I should be doing during the course of a day because my day shifts. As a matter of fact, my day is not over as we sit here. I was running a little bit late. I thought I was going to be late because I was out assisting a mother and her three children in getting into the hotel room because they had just been displaced. And before I could get that done, I got another call about a mother and her 8-year old daughter who got out of school and went home as she normally does only to find that the door was locked and she could not enter and the mother's still at work until 6, and her 4-year old is going to be dropped off here very shortly. So as soon as we get off this meeting, I'm going to be headed right back out there to try and get them housed for the night.

My role as an advocate does not end at 5 and does not end on weekends, nor on my birthday, nor on Christmas and New Year’s, nor on holidays, it’s just an ongoing mission. I found a reason to wake up in the morning. I'm not always looking forward to what's in front of me, but I know that it has to be done and I've been entrusted to do that. So it goes from getting people rehoused, to me putting people in hotels, to me addressing the issues by businesses and with people and health-related issues. It’s tedious, but I thank God for the good support systems that I can call in for that.

From talking with all of you, it really sounds like it is a never-ending challenge to address the problem. There’s a steady number of people constantly needing help. Ben, what kind of changes have we seen here during the pandemic? The general population suffered an initial economic gut punch, but what did the pandemic do to the situation for people living in poverty?

GOODWIN: Well, over 18 months we've seen a little bit of everything, but some of the things that stand out to me are just: we work with families that are trying to build a better life for themselves by very carefully putting together the pieces of the puzzle to climb out of homelessness. There's a thin margin for error and the pandemic just kind of blew through that margin of error for a ton of families.

At the beginning of the pandemic, people lost their jobs and that was a blow and any kind of blow like that can set you back quite a bit. Even some of our families who had done great and who were stably housed at that point and were out of our program experienced setbacks that caused them to need our services again. And then families and individuals that are already kind of precariously perched, that just made things worse.

As the pandemic has gone on, I think those economic impacts are still happening. If you're a single mom with two kids, if your childcare has to close for a week because of a COVID case and you have to take off for a week, that can be a big economic blow that might lead you to become homeless. And so economically, I think the families we serve are not out of the woods.

There are some bright spots too. I think the fact that it's relatively easy to get a job right now and employers are paying more, and so we're benefiting on the upside from some of those things, but some of those economic traumas are still happening and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

I think, under the surface, the bigger pieces are the emotional impacts. The psychological impacts of the pandemic and the stress that it's caused, the upheaval in people's lives, the people who have lost loved ones. They’ve had loved ones who have been sick and hospitalized, who've been potentially disabled by the virus, they've just experienced a lot. So mental health is always a big focus of what we do, but during the pandemic, it has been even more important to focus on that. We've seen that the mental health needs, the stresses, the anxieties, the chronic mental illness going into an acute phase. We've seen all of that and more, more than ever before, and so that's just compounded the challenge of addressing the sort of nuts and bolts issues that we deal with for clients.

And any of you obviously are welcome to jump in, but Mandy, what do you have to add?

DAVIS: Yeah, I think that providers are too often under-resourced on a good day, and so on a bad day, like when the pandemic hit and the numbers started to increase and evictions increased rapidly, we were overwhelmed. We are overwhelmed again on a good, normal day, and so it was overwhelming. It was overwhelming for myself, for staff, and especially for the people who were the victims of eviction, who were the victims of this global pandemic. It's more people to screen, to test, to track, to socially distance, to quarantine, it's just more on us all, and so I agree with you.

Ben had mentioned mental health, not only the mental health of the people being evicted, but the mental health of the people on the front lines became an enormous issue. I know for myself, for Chris and for Ben as well, because the people who were serving the people who were coming to the gates for services, they are being impacted too, and vicarious trauma is so real, and so it has been difficult for us to to hire recently and to keep people employed in this line of work. So I think there's all sorts of consequences to this, not only for the people who are experiencing homelessness, but for the people who are serving those people.

I was thinking that this is quite a burden for you guys to go through. Thinking about what Chris was saying, just about this never-ending cycle of constantly working to address and to help these people. How do you personally handle that?

DAVIS: Therapy, weight training, drinks with friends, family, calling Ben, calling Chris, you know, yelling when nobody's around, those sorts of things. And just holding tighter to each other, holding tighter to our colleagues that are on the front lines and having us all recognize that this is difficult, especially for the people experiencing it, but also for the people who are walking with them through it.


GOODWIN: I just appreciate Mandy highlighting the sort of challenge it has been to the people working in this field. It's always a challenge, but this time I think the challenges have just been compounded. I was at an event earlier today and people were talking about how important encouragement is and I think one thing we can do to help is just give each other encouragement. I feel encouragement from our whole community. I think there have been lots of people in the community who have just really stepped up and said: how can we help? We know you're dealing with a lot, or just to give an encouraging word like we appreciate what you’re doing. That really does matter to people.

So I’d just encourage everyone to just look out for the people. We've talked a lot about healthcare workers and we know they're on the front lines of this too and they're experiencing burn out. There are all kinds of other sectors where people are stressed, people are burned-out because their jobs have just gotten harder, but at the end of the day, we're in this together and we just have to encourage each other and look out for each other and support each other when we need it.

Chris, did you want to add anything?

PORTER: First of all, I try not to handle everything myself, although there's a lot that I have to do. When I realize that there is something outside of my scope or there's something that someone else can help me with, I will reach out. But even before I started dealing with homelessness, and the clientele, I also made sure in the interim that I would be okay by doing self-help things. So, I'm aware of burnout. I've been a counselor for 27 years, so I'm aware of burnout and how it can happen to counselors so I do something daily to take care of me. But when it gets a little more than I can handle I know what to do. I take off. It is a tremendous load sometimes, but when you realize that it’s for you it would be heavy, but when it's for a lot of people or it's for somebody else, the load is not so heavy because you don't have so much emotion in it.

The panel discussing homelessness in Arkansas during the program Issues that Matter. (Clockwise) Jericho Way Director Mandy Davis, Our House Executive Director Ben Goodwin, KUAR's Michael Hibblen and the City of Little Rock's Homeless Services Advocate Chris Porter.
Central Arkansas Library System
The panel discussing homelessness in Arkansas during the program Issues that Matter. (Clockwise) Jericho Way Director Mandy Davis, Our House Executive Director Ben Goodwin, KUAR's Michael Hibblen and the City of Little Rock's Homeless Services Advocate Chris Porter.

I want to go to a few questions that are coming in, and we have one from Barry Burton, who asks: “What are some commonly held beliefs about the homeless that really are not true?” He says, “I see them every day as I travel around the Little Rock metro area, but I struggle to understand their true situation is.” Ben, Mandy, either one of you want to take that?

DAVIS: I think just for me it's always sort of surprising. Most folks are employed, they can reasonably afford things, but not housing. So you can see the trend in cities where affordable housing just doesn't exist and they're going to trend up in homelessness. So housing is definitely not the silver bullet with regards to solving homelessness, but it is a big part of the equation.

Earlier I said that providers like ourselves are too often under-resourced and affordable housing is a big part of that. So, for instance, our housing trust fund having no money in it, that's a problem. We can do all that we can do every day, but if there's not a true continuum of care at the end, a home that they can afford, then homelessness continues. So that would be my message to any leader that makes decisions for our state or for the U.S. that's listening.

Affordable housing is so very important and that is, I think, a huge misconception that people don't work, that they don't want to work. Instead they often do work, but they are the working poor and they remain homeless because there's not access to affordable housing.

I've heard issues about difficulties for people getting transportation. They may have a job working fast food or something that works into the evening, but the buses don't run after 8 o'clock. There are just so many issues that come together even for people who do have a job.

DAVIS: That's true. I had a volunteer once who was sort of frustrated. He was on-site helping and sort of frustrated. His own beliefs were sort of colliding with the day center at Jericho Way away and you could just tell he was struggling with like: what is this? What do I make of this? We talked about jobs and it’s a big issue for people that are looking at the homeless and wondering why? Right? And I just remember thinking and telling him well, who could be their three references? Where are they going to print their resume out? How will they send it to their employer? Everything's online, how will they get online to apply for the job? Those are big things that each of us take for granted, including myself, and so it puts things in perspective. I like to be around people who are experiencing homelessness because they remind me and humble me of just how difficult it is to get a job.

Ben, did you have anything you wanted to add? I know there are also people who have a job but end up living out of their cars.

GOODWIN: Yeah, I think I could maybe highlight the experience of homeless families with children, which looks a little different, oftentimes it's actually invisible. I think there are a lot of homeless parents, all probably, who are highly motivated to avoid actually being on the street with their children for various reasons, but safety is number one. They'll go to great lengths to find ways to have a safe place for their family and children to be that isn't on the street. Maybe that's an extended stay motel. That's not really financially feasible in the long run, but at least I can pay for one night or one week. Maybe it's staying on an aunt's couch or ex-boyfriend's couch that isn't probably the best relationship to rekindle, but you need a place for your kids. Some of these sorts of decisions that people make to provide for their kids. Homeless families with children tends to be a little more invisible, I guess you'd say, but it's out there because we work with such families all the time. That would be another kind of thing that you probably wouldn't see just driving around the street, but that really is a big deal in our community.

I'll take another question here. Grace says that, “You mentioned you’re under-resourced. What are some resources that you would love to have access to that would make it easier for you to address the needs of the people you serve?”

GOODWIN: Can I take a quick stab at that, because I want to highlight one thing Mandy said about the importance of housing. At the end of the day it's just honestly going to take a lot more money to really solve this problem.

The place I would apply a lot more money to would be housing. So one example is our voucher program. I think vouchers are a great housing resource because they sort of put a cap on how much you have to pay for your housing and then the voucher picks up the rest. The cap is 30% of your income, give or take, it's a little more complex. So that program has been really great for families and individuals that can find a job or that get SSI or other disability income. Then they can use that voucher to pay for their own housing but not pay for the full amount. So it's like subsidized housing.

My big idea is, and it's the same proposal from the book Evicted which I encourage everyone to read by Matthew Desmond, is just make that a universal benefit. It would take a lot more money, it would take billions of dollars, but it would be worth it because it would stably house basically everyone. Then there's other people that we need to provide more intensive services to. But I think if we had a really well-funded voucher program, that would be a game changer. And the other thing that's underlying that is housing availability and affordability, which is one big challenge, but also quality is a huge issue.

I've seen way too many families work really hard to be able to afford an apartment and then get into that apartment and it's not a safe place for their family because it has mold, because it has ceilings caving in, because it has bullets flying in the neighborhood, a host of issues there, then that family, that tenant, has no good options. They can either stay in that unsafe place where they can break their lease, which is a big financial hit, that's going to probably lead them to become homeless again. But on the flip side, if we had a well-funded voucher program and all those units had to be inspected and everyone had to rise to this certain standard. Until our state gets its act together and passes some really good renter protection laws, I think you could let the market do some work there by encouraging landlords to up their game a little bit so they can compete for all these voucher funds that are out there.

But right now the voucher program is very constrained and the regular vouchers, you can only apply to be on the waiting list for about five total minutes out of each year and Mandy, correct me if I'm wrong in that, but you know there's a couple of backdoors for homeless folks, but those go quickly too. The main voucher program just to get on the waiting list you have to time it right and apply in this little five-minute window and then you might be on the waiting list for two years or more, and by that time you may not even live in Arkansas anymore. It may be hard for them to even find you. The housing system, so under-resourced that you've got that kind of dynamic where you’ve got the two-year waiting list that you can't even get on right now.

And Chris, did you want to add anything about what the city is doing? Is it a challenge for the city to work to try to get either federal funding or state funding that can assist in the city's efforts?

PORTER: Well, I can’t speak for the top of the bureaucracy, but I can tell you from what I know. There is funding and I would say that our city managers were gracious in assisting me to assist the people that I’m supposed to help. I was given enough funds to voucher quite a few people. As matter of fact, as I mentioned earlier, the people that I just took to a hotel prior to this meeting and the ones that I'm going to take to a hotel after this meeting, it’s a result of the city's efforts to fund. I'm able to help people get rehoused after the eviction, or even if they haven't been evicted. We have some funding still waiting and not a whole lot, but we have the funding.

The people that I've put in the hotel, that's not the end for me. I don't think that would be a good thing to just put them in a hotel because after a few days what are they going to do? While I'm putting a person in a hotel, there is another process I take them through which is get them an application to fill out, for ESG funds which emergency solution grant funds. So, when they get out of the hotel, they get a job. As soon as you get there, you've got to start looking for a place to live, today. I'm going to pay you with some of the deposit and three months rent if you find the place and you find a landlord. You’ve got to communicate with that landlord and let them know. So it's not just giving somebody a hand out, it's giving them the hand up and encouraging them all day, everyday. They must call me everyday to let me know what progress they made everyday. So it's case management to the 100th degree. Another part of the job that I have is to inspect rental properties to make sure they are safe. So that's been a lot.

We’re heading into the winter. What happens now, what does this change for people who either don’t have a home or are living in their car? Maybe, if you can, any of you jump in about the challenges now as we head into winter.    

DAVIS: I think I could take that. Last year I worked closely with The Van and some other street outreach folks. So street outreach people, if you're out there, you're listening, hats off to you. I've learned a lot about street outreach, good, bad, ugly. You are in the camps, on the streets trying to get people warm and or to a safe space, and it's really hard work. But those folks are vital.

And when we're talking about the winter, those are the folks that come into my mind. I see those sort of heroes that you don't see on the streets who are in their cars and vans and trucks, going out and checking on people. You're helping them weatherize their camps if they're not willing to go into a shelter and then taking the people that are willing to go to a shelter.

Last year we had that horrible winter storm. I partnered closely with the Little Rock Police Department. Hats off to the Little Rock Police Department and all those that took me around and helped me pick folks up and get them into the shelter. Hats off to folks that opened up emergency shelters and kept them open for longer than they typically would. Hats off to the city for coming in and helping when we were just going in, I think that was day seven or something. It's just unreal. A lot happens and it's emergency shelters popping up and people needing help from the community, as far as food, tents, sleeping bags, all that sort of stuff, and shelters needing assistance too. Just going back to some of the first things that we started talking about. The more people in need, sheltering in one space increases the amount of people to test and track and socially, distance and quarantine if there's an outbreak. And so yeah, I think, Michael, a lot goes into when the weather drops.

How many homeless camps do we have? They’re largely unseen because they’re in small wooded areas, some even around KUAR here at the corner of Asher and University. There are a lot of people who are somewhat hidden and I don’t think the general population truly realizes who all is out there. How many camps or people living in that kind of situation?

PORTER: Let me just say that every year the catch with this Central Arkansas Care for the Homeless, we're obligated to do a PIT [point in time] Count and as matter of fact we’re putting it together now. So the number of camps would not be as easy as counting the people because homeless people move around. It's not like one of us. Our house is going to be right here. So we can be in one camp, then that camp can still look like a camp but nobody's living there for a long period of time. Nobody ever comes back to it. So to count the camps probably wouldn’t do it, but there are about 1,200 people. Now the PIT Count, we count the people who are sheltered and people who are unsheltered, and so one year we just did the unsheltered.

Here we are in an unsheltered count right about now. So we're going to be out there counting people and last year it was kind of hectic because of the pandemic. But we're going to be out there counting people, and these people are going to come from every stretch of Little Rock and surrounding areas. So there’s four counties that we’re counting: Pulaski, Saline, Lonoke and Perry county. We're up to like 1,200 people living outside daily, and that’s growing. It’s growing. It will probably surpass what we've had in the past. We will know after January 31, I believe, what that count looks like.

GOODWIN: I'll just add one thing to add to Chris’s comments. The point in time count takes a ton of work to do. I think the last time we did it we counted about 1,000 people who were homeless on a given night. On that one night. But it takes a ton of work to do that and I think we all know, everybody who participates, that it doesn't get everybody. It's just impossible, and that's a known issue all across the country, not just here, but there's other ways of looking at it.

One thing we do at Our House is, one month out of the year we track how many people reach out to us seeking shelter, and we have our shelter and our transitional housing onsite. We have capacity to serve about 100 people. In our current configuration we tend to always be full on a given day. There might be one or two beds open, there might be zero.

We stay 99% full at all times, basically, and so in the month of October we were able to check 34 people into our shelter in that month. We had to turn away 326 people in that one month, and that included 49 families with 123 children, and it included 181 single adults. That's just one month and that's just one shelter that we weren't able to serve. And so that's a humbling stat. And we looked at things like: where did you stay last night? I don't have it broken out by percentages, but 75 were unsheltered in the previous night, 98 we're living with friends and family. So again, that's part of that sort of unseen homelessness. People will find ways to not sleep on the street if they can.

But even after all those beds were full, we still had that many people who were unsheltered the night before.

DAVIS: Michael, I wanted to add to: 2.5 million children roughly every year are homeless in the U.S. So let's pan out even more from what Ben's talking about. That's one provider and Little Rock. So two-and-a-half-million children a year. That's roughly the population size of Chicago. So if you weren't taking deep breaths before when Ben was saying what he was seeing, you can now. That is our truth in America. I think Ben hit an important point, so is Chris, about the lack of affordable housing. You just can't get around it.

In the most recent census, I believe this was specific to Arkansas, the 2020 census suggested that the homeless population had declined by 13%. Do you think this is just simply a case of undercounting?

GOODWIN: I think it's just a notoriously hard thing to count and if you spend a minute thinking about it, you'll understand. So I don't think you can put too much stock in any of those numbers. But census data that requires people to fill out a census form, is probably the least likely to get it right.

The point-in-time count is a team of dozens of volunteers armed with forms that literally into camps all over the city and the county and go to every shelter, and write down the name and details of every person in the shelters, every person they encounter in the in the camps over 24 hour period, day and night. That's a tremendous amount of effort. It's honestly the least bad. It's the best number that I think we can find, but it still has its own flaws. But if you imagine a number based on requiring people to fill out a census form and mail it back, you know it's going to be even less reliable than that.

Want to go to a few questions, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Alice Gray says “As for folks on the verge of being homeless, if you encounter a renter who has been sued in an eviction case, please, please stress to the renter to file an answer in the case within five days to prevent an immediate eviction. At least in my court, even if the answer is late, I stop the eviction until a hearing can be held in every eviction case that is being heard.” She says she has been able to work something out for the tenant. The problem arises, she says, “when the tenant does not file anything at all, because if the tenant does not object to the eviction by filing something, the court assumes the tenant agrees with the action.” And finally it says: “Remember, file something right away, even if it's handwritten.” 

Getting back to the moratorium being lifted on evictions, I open that up to any of you.

PORTER: I will definitely jump in and be very thankful we were able to hear from Judge Alice Gray, a friend of mine. I really appreciate the passion that she has as it relates to people being evicted and not utilizing their rights. I would say that it's just a moratorium and I'm not very surprised because it's obvious. There's a lot of things that took place during the moratorium that made some people really angry, particularly if you own a property or you’re a landlord and you have to pay your mortgage and were not getting paid from the residents.

So, there's two sides to it. But I would say that most people couldn't pay. Those people, when the moratorium was lifted, that means that you've got a landlord who has been listening to things that they want to hear for a period of time. They're going by the law. They have the money and the means to make sure that they get these people out and they don't want no excuses now because they’re fed up. The thing is, I always believe the best remedy is to prevent the eviction, not try to house somebody after an eviction. I think it's very unsettling that a plan was not put in place to do something for the landlords that would give them some peace during the whole process, that there would be compassion, or at least to have some time to hold on to allow these people to stay there.

Mandy, did either of you have anything you want to add before I move on?

GOODWIN: On evictions, I would just reiterate a point I made earlier that if we could make some policy changes in our state to give tenants a little… I appreciate Judge Gray outlining some of the protections that tenants have, but I think other states have a lot more to slow that process down and give the tenant more options. Then also some affirmative tenant rights when the landlords are not doing their part, which we see a lot too. If the landlord's not making needed repairs, they're not providing a safe living environment. Right now the tenant doesn't have many options.

So I think there's some policy changes needed. Our state definitely needs to sort of balance out that relationship. But you know, at the end of the day the evictions will continue to happen, even if we had good tenant protection. If we can't make the economics of affordable housing work for people, and honestly, we didn't see a ton of protection during the eviction moratorium. It seems like people are still getting evicted all the time. So the end of the moratorium didn't change things as it was already happening, and it was happening before the pandemic. And it's definitely been an uptick during the pandemic. This is not a pandemic issue, even though that may be the first time some people have turned their attention to it, it's an issue we've been dealing with for a long time.

Not a lot of time left here, but I wanted to ask. A familiar sight in recent years here in Little Rock has been seeing people at street corners holding signs. I've heard the argument that you shouldn't give money directly to people, but rather you should give money to organizations that provide help. The suggestion is that maybe you're furthering an addiction or other issue. I'd like to hear from each of you: what do you think people should do if they want to help the homeless, but they see someone who looks like they're in need when they're at a stoplight?

PORTER: I will go ahead and go first. I want to say one thing. First of all, that's one of the stigmas, that everybody on the corner is homeless. That’s not true. People panhandle for whatever reason, and my understanding says, the federal courts say they have the right to freedom of speech, which is what they are using, to get whatever they are getting from whomever is giving it to them. To stop traffic in the middle of the street, to either give something to somebody or do whatever, it can cause an accident. But that's not a homeless issue as much as it's probably a legal issue. Somebody has a wreck as a result of someone trying to hand someone some money. I've seen people reach their hand in people’s cars when the car is pulling off. Somebody might get hurt. So it's dangerous no matter whether the person was homeless or not. It’s dangerous for people to panhandle, but they have that right.

Well, Chris, if you need to step off and take care of the family you were discussing, that's fine. We're nearing the end, Mandy, do you want to comment?

DAVIS: Yeah, I think that if you give, you should just give without any expectations. That's my total advice. I was working with a guy that I met panhandling and he was HIV positive and I worked with him as he continued to panhandle to get money for his meds. He's now a recipient of the Ryan White money for HIV survivors and doesn't panhandle any more. But that's his story.

For anyone who's out there listening, if you had to be outside right now tonight, I think the first thing I would panhandle for is a beer. I'd probably pick up smoking. I don’t know, I just feel like if you do give, you should give without any expectations of the person. You're not in the situation.

Try to give without judgment, if you're willing. If not and you want to give to an organization, I personally give to Our House. I would say though, if you hand somebody money, this is just a plug, you should say: go to Jericho Way, 3000 Springer Boulevard, because that's a population that we serve. We want to see them. Our main client is a 50 to 64 years old, single male who's chronically homeless. That's a lot of what you're seeing, not all but a lot. So if that happens, sure, give him five dollars to be able to get bus fare, to get to us, and get a meal and get laundry and shower and see a case manager or a beer.


GOODWIN: Yeah, that's a real personal decision and that's sort of between you and your conscience and your faith and how you make decisions. The sweep of a person's life is long and can contain multitudes. There's people I know who are stably housed now and you'd never know it. But in a previous incarnation of their life, they were panhandling on the street, and then vice versa. So I guess it's some humility and empathy I'd encourage, kind of line with what Mandy was saying.

But then I just did want to make one plug because somebody else in the chat asked: “How can we help?” Right now, you can help us and our families. This would go straight to our families by adopting one of our families. We have, I think, 112 families enrolled in our adopted family program this year and that's a great sort of community tradition, just helping those families provide a great holiday season for their children. And Mandy has done that in the past, which I really appreciate. And lots of people from different walks of life in the community have adopted a family through that program. We kind of keep it a low key program, but all the contributions that do go directly to families and and really do make a big impact.

And we're down to the last couple of minutes here. I just wanted to get final thoughts from each of you. Do you see things getting any better? We're in a different administration in Washington. There's a different pattern of funding. What do you think going forward? Are things getting any better or are they just different?

GOODWIN: One thing I would say is that I don't feel like the job of the homeless providers here, more generally speaking, is to solve and end homelessness. I just think that's too big a task. Homelessness is caused by a whole host of things: poverty, systemic racism, domestic violence, violence, substance abuse, mental health issues. There's just a million other societal problems and homelessness kind of becomes a symptom of that. Our job, I feel like, is to serve the people who are in front of us. Try to get better, try to get bigger so we can serve more, but not necessarily to solve that problem.

I do think the pandemic has created a ton of challenges which I described, but also some good has come from it. Like right now, it's easier to find a job, a higher paying job. Also, there's been a sort of release of this spigot of federal funding, which I think will help in the short-term as long as it lasts. But it's not at the level or the policy design that's going to solve this problem.

This problem is going to be with us in the future, until our whole society fixes some of the root causes. But in the meantime you really can make a difference in people's lives in this work and by supporting those who are doing this work. I encourage you to get plugged into a program like Jericho Way or like the city's efforts to address homelessness or Our House or any of our other great partners, Salvation Army, Compassion Center and see how you can get involved. Whether it's donating money, your time, your energy, your ideas, it really does take a village to meet the needs of our fellow men and women and children who are struggling and who want a better life but just need some help to get there.

And Mandy I guess we'll give you the last word.

DAVIS: Thank you. Well, I think that what Ben said is spot-on. We can do housing first, we can ramp up outreach, coordinated entry and data, hold everyone accountable, set goals and all that. But at the end of the day, this is a symptom of some serious societal issues that are unique to America in a lot of ways, and so there's that. To think that Ben and Chris have hit on in different ways is this idea of hope. Yes, this is a big problem and it is horrific most days and it is overwhelming. But there is hope. We housed a guy today that has been on the street since 2005. We didn't have to wait for federal dollars to do it or anything. And so there are ways, because people need people and we ourselves, when we get involved in helping others, it's pretty inventive. I mean, we're mammals after all and so you can create a way where there is no way we've seen humans do that for a long time. So as we wait for society to change, for the government to get caught up, you and me and everyone else can create change primarily through hope, and our government can’t give us that.

Michael Hibblen was a journalist for KUAR News from May 2009 — December 2022. During his final 10 years with the station, he served as News Director. In January 2023, he was hired by Arkansas PBS to become its Senior Producer/ Director of Public Affairs.
Maddie Becker serves as an intern at KUAR News as part of the George C. Douthit Endowed Scholarship program for the Fall 2021 semester.
Remington Miller was an intern at KUAR News as part of the George C. Douthit Endowed Scholarship program. She later worked as a reporter and editor for the station.