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Arkansas wants homeless camps off state-owned highway property

Michael Hibblen
The Arkansas Department of Transportation wants unhoused people who are camping along highways and interstates to get off of the property.

An effort by the Arkansas Department of Transportation to move unhoused people away from the sides of highways and interstates is getting a backlash. The American Civil Liberties Union argues the action is a violation of people's rights and is threatening to take legal action.

The department has given one week's notice to people on the state-owned property to clear out. Spokesperson Dave Parker says the decision was made after seeing homeless camps grow, which are inhibiting the ability of crews to mow grass and maintain the areas.

One area in southwest Little Rock, near the interchange of interstates 30 and 430, has become especially problematic, he said, because there are several homeless camps in the vicinity.

“There were people moving from camp to camp, and in some cases, that meant crossing the interstate,” Parker said. That "is certainly not a good thing for them, and certainly not a good thing for the motorists out there. ARDOT is, above all else, about safety.”

The department is sympathetic to the homeless problem, Parker says, but owns the right-of-way where people are camped. He claims having people there is dangerous to them and highway workers who have to maintain the property.

Parker says the department has directed those without a place to live to nonprofits that help the homeless.

“A lot of them don't want that help,” he said, “which is their choice.”

The department has put up signs telling unhoused people to leave.

“Our intent is not to get anyone arrested,” Parker said.

But Holly Dickson, executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas, says ARDOT is violating the civil rights of people who are not disrupting traffic.

“I don't know of any homeless people in intersections in Little Rock. I haven't seen any,” she said.

The ACLU has said previously the decision to force people to vacate intersections or along highways violates the 8th mAendment which protects people from cruel and unusual punishment. Dickson says the ACLU has won similar cases in the past by arguing that removing homeless people from public property violates their civil rights.

“We've warned that people have to live somewhere,” Dickson said, calling ARDOT’s actions "cruel." She also suggested government agencies focus too much effort on criminalizing people and not on providing services.

“It's disheartening that this activity is happening this time of year,” Dickson said, referring to dangerously cold winter weather that has moved into Arkansas.

She says the ACLU will continue to fight for vulnerable populations.

Josie Lenora is the Politics/Government Reporter for UA Little Rock Public Radio.