Next Step Dayroom makes case to Fort Smith Board of Directors, keeps funding approval

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 863 views 

Next Step Dayroom will keep the federal grant award of $77,194 recommended to it by the Fort Smith Community Development Advisory Committee (CDAC) after the city’s Board of Directors decided not to hold the recommended funds in contingency.

The 501(c)(3), which provides services and transitional housing to the area’s homeless population, found out from a March 27 study session it was in danger of losing funding when some Board members questioned why it would not relocate its 6th Street location to facilitate downtown redevelopment.

At Tuesday’s (April 3) Board meeting, Next Step Board President Sharon Chapman spoke on the perceived unwillingness of the nonprofit to “play ball” with downtown efforts alluded to by Director Keith Lau and Mayor Sandy Sanders. Lau said on Tuesday the refusal was “impeding the progress of the growth of the city of Fort Smith and the redevelopment of downtown as it’s spelled out in the comprehensive plan.”

Chapman said Next Step had “never been issued an invitation by the Board to discuss any topic,” adding that she welcomed “any opportunity to discuss issues and questions you have about our agency openly in whatever venue is legally appropriate.” Lau was agreeable to a study session later in the year to do so.

Next Step Executive Director Kim Wohlford took a blunter approach, telling Board members, “Our job is not to promote downtown. Our job, our fiduciary responsibility as a 501(c)(3), is to help homeless and provide housing and day shelter for them.”

“There are actually fewer homeless around downtown because they are in our Dayroom getting services. We see sometimes around 80 people per day. So if we weren’t there, they might be roaming the streets. They may not want to stay at Hope Campus,” Wohlford said.

Next Step had previously turned down an offer from Riverview Hope Campus to relocate its services at the site.

Chapman also took issue with the Board’s perception Next Step was focusing wholly on transitional housing. Next Step Dayroom began in 2002 and has received Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) federal funding through the city since 2005 for the purposes of supporting a variety of homeless services. According to data from Next Step, the organization has assisted more than 10,000 separate homeless individuals since 2008. In 2017, the organization provided over 102,000 homeless services, including but not limited to hot meals, job referrals, GED and computer skills training and testing, and housing assistance.

It also operates seven transitional housing sites throughout the city, including the Esther House for women and female veterans, Buddy Smith Home for homeless male veterans, and four locations that serve homeless families. Next Step’s transitional housing program has provided temporary housing for 211 men, women, and children in the last two years.

While Next Step secured its funding with the Board’s 6-1 vote (Director George Catsavis was the lone “no”), the amounts still could experience “nominal” changes, noted Wally Bailey, the city’s director of development services. With Tuesday’s approval, final submissions will be made to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) by May 15 with funds coming to Next Step and other city nonprofits by the end of 2018.

Earlier this month, the CDAC weighed requests for federal funds received and administered by the city through the CDBG and HOME Investments Partnership programs. Final recommendations for the year totaled $1.062 million with $767,897 channeled through CDBG and $294,443 through HOME. However, according to Matt Jennings, director of the city’s community development program, the numbers will likely change based on recent passage of the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill.

For the first time since the 1990s, Jennings said, the CDBG program in particular has received a $300 million increase. Jennings expects at the local level that could take city funds from the $767,897 expected to around $844,000, a bump of close to 10%. Should that occur, approved nonprofits would experience a proportional increase in the amount of disbursements. The HOME program would also experience a slight increase.