As temperatures drop in winter months, often below freezing, the Salvation Army will begin opening the doors of their emergency shelters to the 2,462 homeless of Northwest Arkansas.
Not only do the regular beds at the Salvation Army fill up, but workers convert “activity rooms” into places so more people can stay at the shelter, said Mary Matthews, area commander and core officer of the Northwest Arkansas Salvation Army.
“Not only are our shelters full but then we open cold night shelters which are overflow rooms, so we might have double the capacity,” Matthews said.
The Salvation Army in Fayetteville has room for 40 to 50 people without the overflow shelter, Matthews said
The Salvation Army is the only shelter in Fayetteville that allows people to stay overnight. From June 2014 to July 2015, 2,532 stayed in the two Salvation Army shelters in Northwest Arkansas, said Lindsey Strong, the volunteer and public relations coordinator for the Salvation Army.
This is because some of the people who live in the woods most of the year try to get inside as it gets colder, she said.
“The people who choose or the people who are chronically homeless may be living outside in the rest of the year, but as the temperatures drop, they cannot handle that,” she said.
The chronically homeless make up 28 percent of the homeless living in Washington and Benton counties, according to the final results of the 2015 Community and Family Institute Homeless Report. The Department of Housing and Urban Development defines “chronically homeless” as anyone who has a disabling and has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years, or has been homeless for a year or more.
Despite the increase in the number of people in the shelter, there could be as many as 30-40 people living outside, even during the coldest months of the year, said Kevin Fitzpatrick, UA sociology professor and homelessness researcher.
“That clearly is, that’s an unacceptable number,” Fitzpatrick said.
Fitzpatrick said that the change in weather and those who live outside brings to light the question of whether or not there is enough service provided for the homeless in Northwest Arkansas.
“If we want to get rid of this unsheltered population and the threat of cold weather that is most severe to them, then I think the thing to do is to build a micro-shelter village,” Fitzpatrick said.
This micro-shelter village would consist of 15 to 20, 10-by-10 foot shelters. These would have no utilities or electricity but would provide somewhere clean and dry for the homeless to stay. They would also have lockable doors, he said.
It would also make it easier for shelters to provide services to the homeless because instead of being scattered throughout the woods, mostly in areas in south Fayetteville, they would be all at one location, Fitzpatrick said.
The shelters would be used to help people get out of the woods or shelters and get into a house, Fitzpatrick said.
“I wouldn’t characterize these as permanent,” Fitzpatrick said. These are temporary and it’s a stopping off point to where they move into the continuum.”
– Ginny Monk and James Bush