Off the Street, Not Out of the Cold: Our House Residents Adjust to Power Loss; Shelter’s Food Spoils
By April Hanson
LITTLE ROCK — The only light that 8-year old Bryant Kwon O’Neal has seen inside the Our House shelter since 3:30 p.m. on Christmas Day was the glow of a handheld video game, which he played until the batteries ran out.
Bryant and about 120 other residents remained without power Thursday afternoon, after Arkansas’ major winter storm Tuesday.
“We’ve been having snowball fights,” Bryant said.
Our House, a shelter for the working homeless at 302 E. Roosevelt Road in Little Rock, does not have backup generators. And while people have been adjusting to a lack of hot water and the cold, dark buildings, Executive Director Georgia Mjartan said the biggest problem is growling stomachs.
“Last night, we lost all the food in the refrigerators and freezers,” Mjartan said Thursday. “So we’re down to where we don’t have any food. Nothing like this has ever happened.”
The shelter has about 15 freezers and refrigerators, including a walk-in freezer and walk-in refrigerator. Though Mjartan did not have an estimate on the amount of food lost, she said the shelter had been stocked with turkeys, hams, eggs, milk and bacon.
“All that we had to get rid of,” Mjartan said.
Before the holidays, the shelter had received enough fresh food to feed the residents for the next month, Mjartan said.
“We probably had more donations of food, Christmas presents” than past years, Mjartan said. “It was just incredible the outpouring of support.”
The shelter’s ovens and stoves are gas powered. So a “huge” donation of canned goods on Dec. 21 will help residents get at least a little bit to eat.
“The residents just had soup for lunch and dinner,” on Wednesday, Mjartan said.
While the shelter has an education building and a family housing facility, most residents were staying in the main shelter.
“In the family house … [there are] rooms along the back with trees back there that some of the families were anxious about,” Mjartan said.
“A mom and her three boys, they slept in the living room. Most of the people in the family house are hanging out in the shelter.”
The day the power failure began, residents still had a traditional Christmas meal with all the trimmings, thanks to eight Jewish volun- teers and others associated with the Jewish Federation of Arkansas.
For at least 16 years, Jewish volunteers have provided a Christmas feast to Our House residents — and the snowiest Christmas in Arkansas’ history did not deter most volunteers this year, said Joy Figarsky, a board member at the Jewish Federation of Arkansas and at B’nai Israel in Little Rock.
“While they were preparing the dinner, the power went out and the fire alarm went off, and we had to evacuate,” said Figarsky, who coordinated this year’s dinner. “We just forged ahead.”
Besides turkey, residents enjoyed beef tenderloin and prime rib donated by Jimmy’s Serious Sandwiches in Little Rock, and homemade desserts, including a Candy Land cake for the children, Figarsky said.
Figarsky said Dr. Charlie Freeman, a member of Temple B’nai Israel, drove from his home in Sherwood to play traditional Christmas music on the violin while the children opened donated presents and ate in the dark.
“Our shelter supervisor, he kind of got emotional,” Mjartan said of the volunteers. “There’s not a lot of people who would do that, to come out on Christmas.”
It started to sleet and ice when volunteers arrived around 2 p.m. Tuesday, and by the time they left at 5:30 p.m., it was worse, Figarsky said Thursday.
“It was pretty dangerous. My son, his car got stuck — he has to get it towed,” Figarsky said.
“But we feel like it’s a real blessing and opportunity, because it’s not our holiday, to do something nice for people in need.”
On Thursday afternoon, Mjartan said an Entergy representative said workers were trying to repair the damaged circuit in the area but were unsure of when the power would be back on.
Despite the lack of power, two more people checked into the shelter Thursday, Mjartan said.
“We were all standing around, trying to figure out what we’re going to do,” Mjartan said, acknowledging that the residents would probably eat soup for yet another day.
“People are really grateful they are in a safe place. If you think about some of the places these families were before … no one’s complaining.”