story and photos by Pamela Hill
FAYETTEVILLE – The Vietnam-era veteran is retired, but still works.
A 36-year-old man is disabled and can’t get a regular job.
Two single mothers struggle together to meet their children’s needs.
All of them need a little help.
And they found it Tuesday (Oct. 23) at Hope 2012.
The event at Central United Methodist Church on Dickson Street was coordinated by 7hills Homeless Center of Fayetteville and was a one-day resource event for veterans, homeless and those in need in Northwest Arkansas.
Volunteers provided medical care, vision, dental and overall health screenings, flu shots, haircuts, food bags, legal advice, and Veteran’s services. A prayer room, sponsored by the church, also was available to those who wanted it. About 400 people were served at this fourth annual event.
“Things are really hard for us right now,” said Lynn Gardner, mother of a 7- and 2-year-old. “Our heater and our oven went out. This was really such a blessing.”
Gardner and her children share a home with Cassandra Bruce and her two kids. In a few days, a friend who just got evicted and her three children will also move into the home temporarily, likely a few months. “It’s just hard now,” she added.
Gardner said her children have insurance but she doesn’t. She suffers from a seizure disorder that recently landed her in the hospital. She was told to go to another hospital in Little Rock but she can’t afford it. One of the reasons she came to the event was to get legal help in making out a will. She worries about her children if something happens to her.
Bruce, who works a fast-food job, got sick yesterday and was diagnosed and treated for strep throat at the event. Like Gardner, she has no health insurance. The women, along with Bruce’s oldest child, also received a flu shot, dental help, haircuts, a meal and food bags at the event. They also received veteran’s health and services information to take home to a veteran who also lives in their home, but suffers from a stress disorder and rarely leaves the house.
The event stemmed from a request more than four years ago from a veterans group to Dr. Kevin Fitzpatrick, a University of Arkansas sociology professor, to help organize an event for homeless veterans.
“I told them I thought there was probably a lot more that we could do,” Fitzpatrick said.
Together with 7hills CEO Jon Woodward, the event includes not only veterans, but anyone with home or security issues and is able to corral a number of resources and supplies for those in need.
The Veterans’ Affairs is also onsite to coordinate services for any veterans. The event has grown from a hundred people the first year to 400.
Woodward said 7hills can provide further assistance to those who came to the event and need help coordinating or getting to doctors’ visits or to assist with other resources.
“This helps with immediate needs, but we want to help with their long term needs,” Woodward said.
He said training and different housing programs can help people move into a more stable lifestyle.
Dale Wright, one of many veterans at the event, came after hearing about it from a friend. Wright served in the U.S. Air Force from 1969-1973 and owned his own car shop in Fayetteville for 30 years. He works as a bus driver for the Fayetteville School District.
He and his wife, Mary, who does not have insurance, went through the health screenings and met with legal advisers about an issue Mary needed help with, Wright said.
Rick and Jackie Hennig of Johnson are like many people in the country. They’ve lost their jobs.
“I went from having health insurance and life insurance to having nothing,” Jackie Hennig said. She worked eight years for Pinnacle Foods before losing her job in May, she said.
Rick Hennig said this is the first time they’ve attended the event, but he was impressed by the efforts to bring so many services together. And he valued being able to see a doctor.
“It’s expensive to go to the doctor,” he said.
Jackie Hennig said she’s heard there are some job openings for telecommunications in Fayetteville. She’ll apply for those. She said she and her husband will work as bell ringers for the Salvation Army at Christmastime.
“There are people here getting their eyes checked who’ve never had their eyes checked,” Woodward said.
Many of the attendees are regulars to the church on Tuesdays and Thursdays, days when one of the Central’s ministries serves a community meal. The twice-weekly meal program, in its 15th year, adds up to 1,150 meals a month.
Jeanie Hill, who coordinates the meals program, said most of the attendees live in homes but need help. She said she’s noticed a lot more young adults in recent months.
“Most of them don’t have jobs,” she said. “They’ve tried, but they’re just not getting them.”
One of the meal regulars is John Wesley Barton Sr. of Fayetteville. “It’s necessary,” he says of the meals. “They keep me going.”
Barton, 36, has multiple sclerosis and has had spinal and leg surgeries, giving him permanent disabilities. He said he’s tried to find work but hasn’t found any due to his health issues.
“No one is willing to take that big of a risk,” he said.
The majority of people at Tuesday’s event have homes, Fitzpatrick said, but they may be barely hanging on and are in need of assistance.
Woodward said while some of the area’s homeless are the more typical male in the late 30s or 40s, but more and more families are among that number. Most recent figures for the area show 70% are families with children and 25% are veterans.
“Homelessness ain’t what it used to be,” Fitzpatrick said.
Job loss and an increasing divorce rate contributes to that, Woodward said. Adult onset of mental illness and a lack of a support system and little or no community involvement are other factors, he added.
“It might seem easy to try to figure out what’s wrong. It’s not always so simple,” Woodward said.
A 2011 count of the homeless in Washington and Benton counties found just more than 2,000 people. Fitzpatrick said the actual number is probably much greater.
Tyson Foods donated about 500 pieces of chicken for the event, which was cooked by Arvest Bank employees. Walgreens provided free flu shots, and numerous doctors and nurses and nursing students, hair stylists and others volunteered time to help those who attended the event.