A group of downtown business owners, nonprofit representatives and city officials met Wednesday (July 22) to address homeless concerns in downtown Fort Smith that have been “triggered” by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The group began in May to seek solutions to a growing group of homeless in the downtown area camping in tents and becoming more aggressive in their panhandling tactics. About 25 homeless people went to Next Step Homeless Services to have their services provided because they didn’t want to be inside as was being required by some service providers due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At that time, Next Step set up tents in St. John’s Episcopal Church parking lot, said City Administrator Carl Geffken.
Some homeless didn’t get along with other homeless, Geffken said. Some set up sleeping bags on the lot across the street from Fire Station No. 1 on North A and Fifth streets. Some moved further until they were in the parking lot of Belle Starr Antiques, at times harassing customers, Geffken said.
“COVID triggered (things),” Geffken said. “We have always had a homeless issue … because Fort Smith is a wonderfully, giving, kind community. And that fosters panhandling and a willingness to help the homeless.”
Geffken called on business and property owners and representatives from the organizations that help the homeless in Fort Smith to come together to find solutions to the problem. The group met for the third time Wednesday (July 22). Though the city cannot solve the problem, Geffken said he would “try to have the city step up.”
“We have the police force. We have the streets department. The street department will make the signs, which are No Loitering, No Trespassing. I spoke to Deputy (Police) Chief (Waymon) Parker and said, ‘Can we do something for control even if it’s not an officer, if it’s our meter enforcement?” Geffken said.
The city has the green No Loitering signs available for posting in the downtown area. Once the signs are posted, if a business or property owner sees someone loitering, they can call the police, who will let those loitering and trespassing that they have to move. Business and property owners can contact the city for a sign. But other steps are needed. The group identified that one way to encourage homeless to move out of downtown is to move services they use out downtown.
When Riverview Hope Campus opened in September 2017 as a place where homeless service providers meet to offer comprehensive assistance to the homeless in Fort Smith, it was hoped all homeless services would move with it. But Next Step, located at 123 N. Sixth St., and the Salvation Army, located at 301 N. Sixth St., did not move.
Sharon Chapman, Next Step executive director, said Wednesday they are willing to move but do not have funds for another building. Susan Adams, director of development for the Salvation Army, said Salvation Army headquarters and several local board members have been contacted about the possibility of moving their location. But just moving services will not get the homeless to leave an area they like, Chapman said.
“Even if we are gone and the Salvation Army is gone, there will still be homeless downtown,” Chapman said.
Part of what makes Fort Smith’s downtown attractive to the homeless is safety, lighting, traffic, people, food and money, Geffken noted. The homeless can often count on the generosity of those shopping or dining on Garrison Avenue to hand out a dollar or two when asked, he said.
Business owners said they believed that added police presence would help discourage the homeless downtown. Talicia Richardson, executive director of 64.6 Downtown, said an ambassador program that would hire off-duty police officers as part of a Safety and Security program for downtown that would be funded with an assessment on properties by the Central Business Improvement District (CBID) could help with police presence. The CBID Commission is in the process of getting property values for the area before moving forward with a proposed assessment.
More beds for the homeless also could help. Hope Campus is looking at a $2.4 million expansion to enlarge its housing options, adding room for another 35 beds with showers, laundry and a day room; adding a 48-bed transition housing area, and remodeling a warehouse area into a dormitory setting that could house 50-75, said Chris Joannides, executive director. When Hope Campus opened, it also was hoped by many it would solve the problem of homeless downtown. But many homeless just do not want to sleep inside a shelter, even a low-demand shelter like Hope Campus where anyone can come, whether they were drunk or high or off the streets, Joannides said.
Hope Campus and Next Step are looking at creating a “tent city” where tents would be set up for the homeless in an area that offered bathrooms, showers and other facilities. Some at the meeting noted that Hope Campus originally had plans to have a tent city. Hope Campus is also starting a mental health treatment program that could help with homeless with mental health and addiction problems, Joannides said.
But there is another issue that none of these steps will alleviate — panhandling, Adams said. The downtown panhandlers are not homeless, Adams said, noting that some have talked to her about giving it a try, noting they make more in a day panhandling than she makes in a month. The city cannot make panhandling illegal because of First Amendment protection of free speech, Geffken said. As long as the panhandler is on public property and not impeding traffic, police cannot do anything either.
“We need to do a better job educating the public to not give to them,” Adams said.
To help educate and encourage residents to give to nonprofits rather than panhandlers the city started a Better Way Campaign in 2019. Residents can donate to the United Way of Fort Smith Area specifically to help the homeless by texting “fort” to 91999. Those doing so will receive a text back directing them End Homlessness Now. They can then make a donation via ApplePay, PayPal or with a credit card, and 100% of the donated funds will go to one of the four non-profit organizations helping the homeless in Fort Smith — Community Rescue Mission, Hope Campus, Next Step and the Salvation Army, Geffken said.