Charity in the Cold: Area organizations ease winter-weather challenges for homeless

Charity in the Cold: Area organizations ease winter-weather challenges for homeless

SYNC Weekly
Erica Sweeney

Whether the reason is too much time spent outside exposed to the elements or heating bills that are too expensive, winter has a major effect on the homeless and nearly homeless of central Arkansas.

For the unsheltered homeless who may spend a majority of their time outside, cold temperatures can pose obvious dangers. Aaron Reddin, founder of nonprofit organization The Van, says there are often a couple of deaths each winter because of exposure to the elements, something that doesn’t happen during other seasons.

The Van provides mobile relief to these homeless individuals by distributing basic needs such as clothing, personal hygiene items, food, blankets, tents and firewood in the Little Rock metro. Other teams serve the Russellville and Searcy areas.

On Friday, the third annual War’m Chief Benefit for The Van features musical performances, including Little Rock band War Chief, at Stickyz at 8 p.m. Admission is a $5 donation for The Van or donation of warm clothing or winter supplies, including socks, underwear, gloves, tarps, blankets and sleeping bags.

Reddin says The Van’s goal is to “try to get where [the homeless] are.” It deliberately doesn’t count how many individuals are served, but the organization assists with the official homeless count every two years. In January 2013, he says, The Van counted just more than 500 homeless people living unsheltered in the Little Rock metro, but Reddin says he believes the count is inaccurate and likely much higher. The next count is next month.

Georgia Mjartan, executive director at Our House, says cold weather and the holiday season can affect the homeless and families living in poverty in a variety of ways.

She says while many families might be able to afford a place to live, they often cannot afford the high cost of utilities during the winter. This forces many to set fires in their homes or use ovens and stoves to keep warm, which can create an unsafe living space.

Mjartan recalls a family from a couple of winters ago that had a young girl who accidentally set fire to herself while lighting a fire to stay warm. She says the family was not able to afford their heating bills, a problem that commonly extends to January and February.

Another obstacle facing parents during winter-month holidays is finding and paying for child care while kids are out of school. (This is also an issue in the summer.) Mjartan says most of the families served by Our House are led by single parents, who cannot take off work to care for their children when school is out.

Our House provides housing, employment, education, child care and other children’s programs for homeless and near-homeless individuals and families but does not work with the chronically homeless, Mjartan says. The organization operates a shelter, but its 120 beds are always full, and hundreds are usually on the waiting list, particularly during the cold-weather months.

Mjartan says there are about 30 openings a month at the shelter, mostly because individuals in the program can stay for up to two years.

During the winter, she says, some of Our House’s programs are modified to account for cold weather. One of the program’s requirements is that individuals hold jobs or actively seek employment, but when the temperatures are too cold, this requirement may be modified. Instead, Mjartan says individuals may stay inside and work on resumes, apply for jobs online or work on other job-related skills.

Coats, hats, gloves and other cold-weather gear are provided to individuals at Our House.

The Van, Our House and other organizations often work together to find the best solutions for homeless individuals all year long. “We recognize it’s a continuum of services,” Mjartan says.

Reddin says there is a lack of female shelter beds in central Arkansas unless women are victims of domestic violence. The Nov. 24 shooting death of Kathryn Pawlak, a homeless woman, at the Village Shopping Center at Asher and University avenues illustrates this need, Reddin says.

Earlier this year, The Van set up a house for women and children to serve as an emergency transitional shelter until a longer-term solution can be found. He says the house can serve “five unrelated adults” at a time.

He’s also planning to set up multisite, emergency shelters during inclement winter weather. Reddin is looking for locations in downtown and southwest Little Rock for the shelters and says it’s a “race against the clock” to get space committed before the first round of sleet, snow or ice.

“We’re trying to make sure Arkansans aren’t left [without] options,” he says. “It’s a daunting task.”

There’s an influx of donations and volunteers wanting to help the homeless during the holidays, Reddin says, but help is needed year-round. Items of particular need include large-size men’s clothing, shoes and boots, as well as socks, underwear and bras. Gas cards are another big help — Reddin explains that fuel costs account for the organization’s biggest overhead because of its mobile nature. Monetary donations are also always welcomed.

“We want to bring our homeless neighbors into our community as much as we’re in theirs,” he says. “That’s not seasonal. We have a lifeline with folks day to day, every day.”

Mjartan says Our House receives about $1 million in donations and has more than 2,500 volunteers each year. During the holidays, it operates a stocking stuffer program where individuals can donate small gifts to the adults living in the shelter, she says. Also, monetary donations can be designated for specific programs, such as for meals or children’s programs.

“It’s overwhelming how many people want to give in our community,” she says.