Northwest Arkansas homelessness increased 36 percent in two years, according to the UA most recent homeless census. Shelters have prepared to help the nearly 2,000 homeless people prepare for cold weather.
Many organizations in northwest Arkansas have resources available for the homeless to receive food and clothing, but The Salvation Army is the only organization with overnight shelters for men and women in Rogers and Fayetteville, Dawn Alva, a Salvation Army official said.
Shelters are open for the homeless every night from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m.
A hot dinner, breakfast and sack lunch are provided for everyone who stays overnight, said Danny Camarillo, Salvation Army housing manager.
To ensure privacy, shelters are separated into dorms for men, women and families with 42 beds total. Guests can stay for 10 nights and are expected to complete job applications daily, or up to 30 nights if they have a job, Area Commander Maj. Tim Williford said.
“People are required to be looking for jobs if they’re staying at The Salvation Army,” Williford said. “This is not long-term housing, we’re trying to help them get off the streets.”
Those restrictions don’t apply when temperatures are less than 23 degrees.
In severe weather, The Salvation Army serves as a 24-hour emergency shelter open to anyone, regardless of job status and can accommodate up to 75 people though there are 42 beds, Camarillo said.
“The Fayetteville shelter is normally full,” Williford said. “They sleep on cots because there aren’t enough beds for them all.”
People may be crammed, but the shelter does its best to keep everyone warm though the winter.
The Salvation Army cannot exceed 75 guests. When capacity is reached, officials have used creative resources, they said, to ensure everyone has a warm place to sleep during severe weather.
“We try not to turn anyone away,” Camarillo said. “Sometimes we’ve had to call law enforcement who will help them find a secure place. People have spent the night in jail before because the weather was so bad.”
Some churches also open their doors to the homeless as a cold-weather shelter during the winter, Camarillo said.
The number of homeless persons in Benton and Washington Counties increased 36 percent between 2009 and 2011, from 1,287 to 2,001, according to the most recent homeless census taken in 2011. The number of homeless youth increased by more than 39 percent.
“There are a lot of cold people out here,” said 29-year-old Jessica who asked not to disclose her last name. “I don’t think others know how it is to be out here on the streets — to live the life and walk the trials that I’ve walked.”
Jessica has been homeless for two years, she said.
In 2010 and 2011 a 24-hour, severe weather shelter was needed in January and February. Winter was too mild in early 2012 to warrant an emergency shelter, Williford said.
Officials don’t expect severe weather to be a problem this year.
“I don’t see us doing a severe weather shelter this year, but if it gets cold enough we’ll be ready for it,” Williford said. “You know how crazy the weather is around here.”
Recently, the Salvation Army began its annual Coats for Kids drive that will provide coats for children and adults through the winter. Last year, there were 209 cases of families who benefited from the drive, according to the 2011 Salvation Army social service statistics.
“We had people coming in all winter to get coats,” Dawn Alva, former Salvation Army social worker said.
Along with coats, The Salvation Army provides blankets, pillows and cots to help sustain the homeless through the winter.
“People steal [cots] like crazy because they don’t have anything else to sleep on when they leave the shelter,” Williford said. “They’re on camera but we still can’t catch them.”
The preferred term for the homeless in Fayetteville is “urban outdoorsman,” Williford said. “The name really makes sense because they sleep in the woods and live outside in urban environments.”
The term is relevant for Jessica and her boyfriend who both sleep under a bridge in south Fayetteville with a small group of homeless people, she said.
Jessica thinks “there’s a purpose for everyone” and not enough people are helping the homeless, she said.