2017 tally finds 55% of Little Rock-area homeless live out in the rough
By Ginny Monk
Photos by Mitchell Masilun
June 10, 2017
A man who called himself Jack McGee proudly extended his arms to show that there were no bruises or needle pricks from drug use hiding among the tattoos decorating his skin.
McGee, 53, says he’s lived on the streets or in the woods in Little Rock intermittently for the past 14 years. When the former welder first became homeless, he had just gotten a divorce from his wife of 19 years, and she had custody of their two children.
He turned to alcohol and drugs, he said, to cope with the suffocating feeling that nothing mattered anymore.
He now lives in a tent in some Little Rock woods with a tiny, brown dog he calls Pinkie.
“It’s hell on earth,” he said.
Like McGee, more than half of the Little Rock area’s homeless live outdoors, huddled under tents hidden in the woods or sleeping on sidewalks or under highway bridges, according to the most recent count.
Of 990 people counted in the Little Rock metropolitan area in January, 55 percent reported that they were unsheltered — the first time since 2007 that more than half of the members of the area’s homeless population said they did not have regular shelter.
The percentage of unsheltered has risen with each census every two years, except for 2015, when it dipped from about 47 percent to about 41 percent, according to the Central Arkansas Team Care for the Homeless. The team’s report was released at the end of March.
The cause of this increase is hard to diagnose, said Ben Goodwin, chairman of the coalition of homeless-service groups, but improvements to the method of counting may have contributed.
“I think that it’s a factor in a decent chunk of the percentage,” Goodwin said.
Services for the homeless in Little Rock also may be drawing more people to the area, Goodwin said.
Goodwin’s team conducts a point-in-time count of the homeless in Pulaski, Lonoke, Saline and Prairie counties every other year and reports those numbers to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The homeless-care team and governments use the data from the biennial count to coordinate services for the homeless.
Aaron Reddin, founder of The Van, a nonprofit that uses a fleet of vans to deliver food and clothing to the unsheltered homeless population in Little Rock, said many of out-of-town people are arriving from more rural areas of the state.
“If you lose your place in rural Arkansas, you’re going to have a really hard time finding any services, and you’re certainly not going to find a shelter where you can stay,” Reddin said.
“Eventually, people end up funneling in here, which leaves service providers here overwhelmed.”
Reddin said he often encounters some of these rural Arkansans who are on the streets after a discharge from a mental-health facility.
“Folks come in from rural Arkansas to the hospitals here,” Reddin said. “They end up discharged with nowhere to go and no way to get anywhere, and so they’re stuck on the streets here.”
Nationally, about 1 of every 5 people living in the streets is gripped by a mental illness — schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder are some of the most common, according to a 2016 report from HUD.
“They could have PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] from being on the streets and being raped or robbed or beaten,” said Carolyn Turturro, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock who has studied homelessness in Little Rock for 18 years.
“Depression — I mean think about it — if you’re homeless, yeah, I think you’d be depressed.”
McGee has bounced from the streets to mental-health facilities and back again many times, he said.
Doctors would diagnose him with a depressive disorder, prescribe him medication, and he would head back to the streets, where he usually stopped taking the medicine because it put him in a haze that made him lose touch with reality.
Even for those who continue to take their medicine, shelters frequently ban the antipsychotics used to alleviate hallucinations associated with schizophrenia, said Mandy Davis, director of Jericho Way.
Jericho Way is a day resource center in Little Rock. In addition to providing services such as laundry, food and case management, workers allow clients to lock their medications safely away for the night. Once they are medicated and get personal counseling, it gets easier to find housing, Davis said.
The center has rehoused about 40 people since March 2015; about six have lost their housing or moved into rehabilitation programs, Davis said.
All those who lost their homes had a dual diagnosis — some kind of mental illness and a drug or alcohol addiction.
“The data shows that those [with a dual diagnosis] are the most vulnerable to losing housing, and often it’s because we just didn’t see both — we saw one and not the other,” Davis said.
McGee said that until he got clean, it was nearly impossible for his mind to heal.
“I didn’t want to be better,” he said. “I was fine with digging through dumpsters and bumming for money or whatever.”
He said his time in drug-rehabilitation programs and mental hospitals didn’t help much because he knew he was headed back to the woods once released.
McGee said he always went right back to the streets after a stay in a hospital.
“I had nowhere else to go,” he said.
This is the case for many who grapple with mental illness, Davis said.
They have no friends or family to make the transition easier.
“Often people with mental illness burn their bridges with their families, they just get tired of dealing with them, and they just say, ‘Enough, no more,'” Turturro said.
McGee said he is still in contact with his children but doesn’t want to burden them by moving into their homes.
Turturro is working with the Arkansas Office of Health Information Technology to improve communication between hospitals and homelessness care providers by encouraging shelters to use the Arkansas State Health Alliance for Records Exchange (SHARE), a program that allows medical professionals and social workers to share patients’ health records securely.
The information exchange also can contain contact information for family members, Davis said.
Many times in the past, Turturro said, homeless people hospitalized during a psychotic break or after a suicide attempt would be dropped off on the streets or at shelters upon discharge, often afterhours with no forewarning or description of needed outpatient care.
Jan Bartlett, the policy director for the Health Information Technology Office, first got involved with the homelessness-care community about a year ago when she attended a meeting of providers and advocates and learned about the “patient dumping” practice.
Davis said she has seen fewer cases of patient dumping in the past year, but the path from the hospital to a shelter is still not easy.
When Bartlett recognized this problem, she applied for an $84,000 grant. Her office has used it in part to provide up to a year of free access to the records-exchange program for homelessness-care providers. The money will dry up in December, she said.
“These poor folks are getting batted around,” Turturro said. “They go to another hospital, they have new medicines; I’m hopeful that SHARE has helped.”
McGee said he’s looking to start working again and to find a place for him and Pinkie to stay. He is unsure about whether he will try welding again because backward is not a direction he wants to go.
“About 15, 16 years ago, I couldn’t understand what makes people homeless,” he said.
A Section on 06/10/2017