EDITOR'S NOTE: Homelessness is on the rise in Hot Springs. In a three-part weekly series, The Sentinel-Record takes an in-depth look at the problem, who is suffering the most and what else the community can do.
It seems they are visible on almost every street corner -- men and women, sometimes accompanied by children, even pets. They hold up tattered signs, scribbled with pleas for help.
There is speculation in Hot Springs as to whether these people are truly homeless, whether they even need help at all. The truth is, it is hard to know. Some do live on the streets or in homeless camps scattered around the community, according to several nonprofits that focus on indigence.
Some, however, do not.
Regardless of the truth behind their cardboard signs, the panhandlers are one of the few visible symptoms of a largely invisible problem here: homelessness.
It is a problem that is getting worse.
Of the more than dozen interviews conducted by The Sentinel-Record, ranging from individuals who work for nonprofits to law enforcement, government agencies, school districts and churches, a unanimous opinion emerged that an increasing number of people in Garland County do not have a stable place to live.
"I will be the first to say that we have seen an increase in homelessness in Hot Springs," Jason Stachey, the city's police chief, said. "I see the numbers every day."
The numbers are the tricky part. To obtain federal grants for homeless programs, nonprofits are required to coordinate an annual count that takes place nationally on a designated date in January. Those who conduct the count say because of strict guidelines on who qualifies as homeless, it does not accurately reflect reality.
This year, 215 people were documented as homeless or living in shelters in Garland County. That is down from the 385 individuals that were tallied in 2017. Volunteers say that unseasonably warm weather in 2017 could be a reason for the bump as more people were outside rather than staying in abandoned houses or buildings to stay warm. During the 2018 count, temperatures plunged well below freezing.
"My argument is that it (the count) misses the boat," said Kevin Fitzpatrick, a professor at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville who researches homelessness in the state. "If all you are doing is waiting for homeless to show up at a shelter, you are missing them."
Fitzpatrick and his team created a formula to estimate homelessness. It takes into account a number of variables, including homeless children and their parents as well as people who are doubled up, or, in other words, might be living with family or friends because they cannot afford housing of their own. In 2017, Fitzpatrick's team estimated nearly 3,000 individuals were dealing with homelessness in Benton and Washington counties. That is a 153 percent increase since the count was first conducted in 2007, Fitzpatrick said.
The point is there are likely far more people suffering from homelessness in Garland County than official numbers indicate. Even without a reliable estimate, nonprofits that provide aid to the poor in the Hot Springs area are reporting increased demand for services, indicating individuals living in various forms of homelessness could be double, even triple, official counts.
In 2017, for example, community crisis center Jackson House opened over 1,000 new client files for individuals and families in need of food, medical or other assistance. That same year, the charity served 56,424 free lunches, an increase from about 55,000 served in 2016. St. Luke's Episcopal Church, which provides food and other support to homeless, reported at least 40 individuals visiting their facilities daily for some type of assistance.
Almost 50 percent of students attending Lakeside and Lake Hamilton school districts are on free or reduced lunch programs. Over 86 percent of students attending Hot Springs School District live in low-income families. All students in that district are on free or reduced lunches.
"I do think it has gotten worse," said Tina McBride, a senior case manager with Cooperative Christian Ministries and Clinic, a nonprofit that assists homeless individuals with finding services they need to get their lives back on track. "We have a lot of families living in very substandard housing, a lot of families just couch surfing, people sleeping in cars."
In a one-month period in 2017, The Salvation Army received 40 requests from individuals seeking an emergency shelter. Over the past three years, The Salvation Army has experienced an 83 percent increase in the number of free evening meals it serves.
"It is pretty concerning," Hot Springs Salvation Army Lieutenant Bradley Hargis said. "It's like, holy cow, what happened?"
'It just takes one little thing'
There is no easy answer as to what, exactly, is causing an increase in homelessness here. It appears that for many, life has become like a house of cards, and with one wrong move -- a personal tragedy, a health condition, the loss of a job -- that house can crumble, leaving individuals or families with nowhere to stay but on the street or in some other desperate situation.
Professionals who work with the homeless say they see more people without a place to live due to economic hardship. Many are working sometimes multiple jobs and still cannot make ends meet. Affordable housing is a major issue.
"Overwhelmingly they are just hardworking people who have had some bad luck and can't get stable," said Erika Cross, a homeless outreach counselor for Hot Springs School District. "Most of these people are trying very hard to stay afloat. It just takes one little thing to set them back."
In the city of Hot Springs, 27.9 percent of the population lives in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In Garland County, that figure hovers around 20 percent. Meanwhile, nearly 50 percent of residents in Garland County are rent burdened, meaning they spend 35 percent or more of monthly incomes on housing, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's latest American Community Survey.
"There is definitely a shortage of affordable housing here," Richard Herrington, executive director of the Hot Springs Housing Authority, said, adding there is a two-year wait list for the city's federally subsidized Section 8 program. "Our waiting list is just getting longer and longer."
Mental illness is another factor. There are virtually no long-term treatment centers for the mentally ill in Arkansas. Ones that do exist are usually too expensive, or the insurance that someone who is homeless is eligible for may not cover any extended stay beyond a few days. The Arkansas State Mental Hospital in Little Rock only admits patients who committed serious crimes or who are deemed dangerous to themselves or to others.
Many people suffering from mental illness end up on the streets, in prison or are dumped at shelters that are not equipped to deal with such disorders.
Ouachita Behavioral Health and Wellness, a mental health service provider, receives federal grant money to help mentally ill homeless not only obtain treatment but also find a place to live.
Eric Huneycutt, a counselor with OBHAW, said demand for the program is only increasing, so much so, that in its second year, grant money intended to last 12 months ran out in half of that time.
"We probably need 10 times more funding," he said.
Huneycutt and his colleagues described mentally ill individuals in the community who are living in tents, under bridges or in houses with no running water and electricity.
Drug and alcohol addiction also leads to homelessness. Women and children often find themselves without a place to live due to domestic violence. As of January 2018, there are nine veterans who are homeless, unable to find stability due to severe post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental health issues. Others are chronically homeless with little desire to ever move back inside.
'There simply are no beds'
Hot Springs has myriad services for people living in poverty and homelessness. There are about a dozen nonprofits that provide assistance ranging from food and clothing to money to help pay utilities, help with mental illness and other health issues. Some have a limited supply of transitional housing, or housing where people can live virtually for free until they have enough savings to find a place of their own.
These various organizations coordinate the best they can to help, referring people from one place to another to find assistance.
But what Hot Springs does not have, and many say it desperately needs, is an emergency homeless shelter, specifically a shelter equipped to handle families.
Emergency shelters "play a critical role when it comes to ending homelessness," according to the Washington, D.C.,-based National Alliance to End Homelessness. These are facilities where people can stay for days, weeks, sometimes months, until they are able to move to transitional housing or find another way to find a stable home again.
If a family ends up on the street today in the community, the unit is separated. Depending on the age of the children, they will end up at a facility like Ouachita Children's Center, which houses mostly homeless children. The father may stay at Samaritan Ministries, a shelter for men. If there is room, Potter's Clay, which houses women with addiction problems as well as victims of domestic violence, may be able to house the mother.
"I think the biggest part of this story is that we don't have places for people to go," Cross, with Hot Springs School District, said. "If a family is homeless, they are truly homeless. There simply are no beds."
A 2018 planning survey conducted by The Salvation Army found that the biggest unmet need in Hot Springs is emergency shelters for families. Women and children are most at risk, the survey found.
Hargis, the head of The Salvation Army here, said the charity is undertaking a feasibility study to see whether it might be able to build such a shelter. But funding is a major concern as well as support from the local government, even the community.
In a 2016 municipal government survey of top concerns among those living in Hot Springs, services for individuals living in poverty or in homelessness did not make the list at all. Sidewalk improvements, abandoned lot redevelopment and parks were the top three concerns. The 2017 survey results are not yet available.
"Shelters can save municipal resources," Hargis said. "If you build a shelter, maybe the police are used less because people are indoors and are not getting incarcerated."
Some shelters in Hot Springs will not let individuals in if they test positive for drugs or alcohol or if they have a criminal record.
"Not everyone is going to be sober, but that doesn't mean they don't want to be sober," Fitzpatrick, the University of Arkansas professor, said. "But it can be hard when you are living in a tent. There is a reason why a lot of people are unsheltered in this country, and it is not because they want to be, it is because the shelter system is not providing them the access they need to gain entry into some type of housing."
A person living in homelessness can cost taxpayers up to $50,000 a year, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, a federal agency in Washington, D.C. Costs add up as homeless individuals cycle in and out of emergency rooms, inpatient facilities, jails and psychiatric institutions.
But funding for homeless programs is an ongoing challenge. Already local charities are cash-strapped, with government grants running out almost as soon as they come in due to overwhelming need in the community. Donations have long been dwindling, directors of a number of nonprofits said. Meanwhile, shelters are expensive to run and are hard to raise money for.
Some are raising the question of whether the Hot Springs municipal government is doing enough.
The city receives an annual federal community development grant, which averages between $350-$450,000. This money is awarded to applicants, some of which are organizations working with homeless-related issues, including Ouachita Children's Center and Habitat for Humanity. In 2012, $67,000 in funding was awarded to a homeless shelter for women and children, which later was taken over by another organization and converted to low-rent housing for women transitioning out of rehab programs.
"We have funded every project on homelessness that has been proposed," Michelle Sestili, administrator of the grant program, said. "If it is a priority for the residents of Hot Springs to house homeless people, they need to get involved. They would have to choose to make this a priority."
Yet experts say local leaders also have to choose to make homelessness a priority. There is some concern city officials here view the homeless as a blight on the community and are more focused on pushing the problem away from tourist areas rather than addressing it head-on.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas filed a lawsuit against the city of Hot Springs over an ordinance that the ACLU argues targets panhandlers. City officials said it is for public safety.
"Don't think it is just going to go away because you turn your eyes away from it," Fitzpatrick said. "I think visibility is what most people are worried about."
Some cities in Arkansas are taking homelessness more seriously.
Fayetteville, for example, secured a grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, which the city uses to administer a program that provides homeless families or individuals assistance with securing housing and paying rent and utility bill deposits. Since 2016, 173 participants have benefited. The city employs three case managers for the program.
Fayetteville also provides $160,000 in annual funding to a day shelter, where homeless individuals can access various services. The city has a transportation program, where those who qualify can get free bus passes or taxi vouchers.
The cities of Little Rock and North Little Rock jointly fund Jericho Way, a resource center for homeless. Plans are underway to build affordable housing near the center as well as a clinic. Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola is a member of a national group that advocates for funding and policy reforms for housing and homeless programs at the federal level. In March, Little Rock announced that it had drastically decreased veteran homelessness.
Conway's mayor created a homeless task force that is comprised of nonprofits in the city. Two full-time city employees serve on its board and research ways local nonprofits and community leaders can contribute to preventing chronic homelessness there.
"It seems like in most places, people find a way to understand that having people living on the streets is not good for the community," Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said. "It is a question of what is going to work to make this community better? A lot of communities have made a lot of progress thinking like that."
NEXT WEEK: Homelessness and children.Local on 07/22/2018