Editor's note: See correction below.
The Fort Smith Board of Directors agreed to actively pursue recommendations to respond more collaboratively to the city’s homeless problems, with City Director Steve Tyler saying the ideas are “a giant step forward in addressing this problem.”
A Homelessness Task Force created in August 2009 by the city board reported Tuesday to the board its 14 recommendations that are “interrelated to provide a comprehensive solution to address the needs of the homeless and the concerns of the community.”
Possibly the boldest of the 14 recommendations is a plan to create a “campus setting” that would consolidate homeless services and “eliminate travel, duplication of services and better represent the dignity of the homeless persons.” This recommendation also includes funding a new campus and disposing of existing homeless service facilities.
Other recommendations include:
• The city restrict social service agencies from expanding in their current locations or the creation of a new social service agency in the downtown and Belle Grove areas;
• The city conduct a community education effort to “generate community support” for the homeless and the consolidate campus;
• The city consider a free voucher transportation program for social service providers;
• Ask the city to work with the Old Fort Homeless Coalition to create a job corps with which the city would give priority when lot clean-ups and other city services are contracted;
• Seek “enhanced police protection” in the Belle Grove and downtown areas; and,
• The city “put more teeth” in existing ordinances and hold property owners more responsible for the maintenance of properties.
But Tyler’s enthusiasm was mixed with his concerns and those of others about the cost of the recommendations and in ensuring that the work of the task force — which held 19 lengthy meetings in less than six months — not be abandoned.
Tom Minton, executive director of the Fort Smith United Way and chairman of the task force, told the board during the noon briefing that a full-time staff person should be supported by the city to best ensure that the recommendations achieve the best possible outcome.
“We don’t need to relocate the problem (to another part of town), we need to resolve the issue,” Minton told the board.
Correction: City Director Don Hutchings said the city budget is probably too tight to add a person but said he agreed a full-time person is needed.
Tyler said the city can’t in good faith ask the task force to come up with ideas and then not support them with at least a part-time person. City Director Gary Campbell suggested moving job responsibilities around and freeing up an existing staffer to handle the issue.
Linda Gabriel, associate director of the Next Step Day Room, said if the city would hire a person experienced in writing grants, the funding can be found for the position and possibly extra funds to support some of the ideas.
As to the issue of a consolidated campus for social services, The Salvation Army has agreed to conduct a Mission Planning Study that may answer many of the logistical, financial and other questions related to a campus. Captain Carlyle Gargas, head of the Salvation Army in Fort Smith, said the study will include an inventory of existing social programs and socio-economic projections to forecast future needs. Gargas said the study should begin in mid- to late-summer and could be finished within six months.
Wally Bailey said an initial preferred area to site a campus is in the old industrial area south of Garrison Avenue and west of Wheeler Avenue. The advantages of the property are that it is near downtown, in an industrial area, not near residential areas and it contains available land and buildings. Locations at Chaffee Crossing and the old Wal-Mart building on Midland Boulevard were also considered, Bailey said.
A key concern among directors was in first getting a handle on how large the problem is, with that focus being on how many people are classified as homeless. One of the task force recommendations is to conduct a “gap” analysis that would best determine the demographics of the population needing social services.
However, there are several indicators that the number won’t be insignificant.
There are almost 800 on the waiting list for tooth extractions at the free dental clinic in Fort Smith. Also, the number of applicants for a Section 8 HUD assistance program — provides rental assistance money to extremely low income persons — has grown from about 680 in early 2009 to more than 1,300 today, said Ken Pyle, executive director of the Fort Smith Housing Authority.
Gabriel said the social service issues related to poverty can be effectively addressed if done in a more collaborative manner.
“There are solutions to every single problem, but we have to manage each person on a case-by-case basis,” Gabriel said, adding that the Next Step Day Room has a 50% success rate with its clients.
Directors Campbell and Kevin Settle urged that the board hold a separate meeting to prioritize the recommendations — with help from the task force — and create an implementation action plan, with Settle suggesting the ideas be broken down as to whether they could be addressed in the near-term, mid-term or long term. Campbell, like most members of the board, praised the work of the task force.
“This is the first time in my knowledge that the community has come together to try to solve this problem,” Campbell said.
City Administrator Dennis Kelly said he would work to schedule a special board session within the next month.