LITTLE ROCK, Ark – Imagine not having a home, access to a cooked meal, or even warm clothes? This is a reality for nearly 2,400 people in Arkansas as homelessness grows across the country.
Advocate groups in Little Rock say they do what they can to help curb a growing problem, but in a capital city, with lawmakers in the backyard, do they think enough is being done?
“What are we doing? Why is this happening?” Matthew Desalvo, the director of social services at the Salvation Army of Little Rock, asked.
Desalvo said homeless camps in downtown Little Rock are hard to miss, becoming monuments of their own in a capital city, and along with other homeless advocates, Desalvo contends these camps are being ignored by lawmakers.
“I don’t want to see people suffer in my backyard,” he said. “I don’t think they’re doing anywhere near enough.”
In 2019, the homeless population in Little Rock was 1,066. In 2020, numbers jumped up 11%, nearing 1,200 people.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2,366 people in Arkansas in 2020 were homeless, which means half were living in Little Rock.
FOX 16 News took photos of homeless camps in downtown and around the Capitol and showed the images to state legislators and city leaders, eliciting a range of responses.
“Well, I mean I empathize with them because they’re trying to find a place to go,” Little Rock director of housing and neighborhood programs Kevin Howard said.
Between state, municipalities, and advocate groups, all agree more needs to be done.
“I’ll just be honest, I think our attention got turned to a lot of national issues that I don’t think is really at the forefront of Arkansan’s minds,” State Rep. Tippi McCullough said.
McCullough added that it’s time to start making homelessness a priority, saying the solution starts with finding more people homes, asking “What comes first? Do you get a job and then a house? Or do you need a house to get a job?”
Homeless advocates like Desalvo and The Van executive director Aaron Reddin say the state doesn’t have enough shelters to accommodate the homeless population.
“For males, if you need somewhere to go right this minute, you’ve got the Compassion Center and that’s your only option,” Reddin said.
His team with The Van noted their last counts show 500 in the homeless community in central Arkansas sleep outside. Desalvo questions how someone can get stable footing to find work under those circumstances.
“How are they going to maintain a job? How are they even going to maintain their own schedule?” he said.
Both advocates agree more money needs to be put toward shelters and sanctioned camps.
“It may be an eyesore to everyone else, but to people that are experienced it, it’s a lot more than that,” Reddin said.
Beyond a place to call home, advocates say deeper issues like mental health and addiction services aren’t being made a priority for the homeless.
“They have to make a choice themselves to do that, but if they’re not in a place to make that choice mentally, they just end up getting recycled over and over again and that’s why they’re still out there,” Desalvo explained.
McCullough believes it is a ripple effect. Without access to mental health care, more may end up on the streets.
“If we could start things when we should, we’re not going to have problems on the backend,” she said.
City leaders say it’s not an easy task, though.
“There are never enough resources, and then you also have to have the manpower as well,” Howard said.
All four agree that working together will be the key to getting people off the streets.
“We want to see homelessness be made a priority in [The State Capitol], and in the city halls,” Reddin said. “Let’s get Arkansans back inside.”