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Money to help coordinate cold response for those experiencing homelessness in Northwest Arkansas



FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Money from the city’s Community Development Block Grant program will help people living outside or in shelters stay warm through one of the coldest spells in recent memory.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development last week approved a reallocation of the city’s block grant money to use as a cold weather response for people experiencing homelessness. The $50,000 is being used for hotel vouchers, transportation, emergency shelter operation and coordination, and supplies.

Staff members and volunteers with 7 Hills Homeless Center, the Salvation Army and Northwest Arkansas Continuum of Care spent the past few days visiting camps and shelters to tell people about available resources.

As of Friday, more than 60 people received vouchers and were given rides to hotels in Fayetteville, Rogers and Bentonville, said Ryan Pearson, outreach navigator with the Continuum of Care.

The Salvation Army’s emergency shelters in Bentonville and Fayetteville are at or near capacity, Capt. Josh Robinett said. Shelter beds are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Up to 71 beds are available in Fayetteville with 96 in Bentonville, accounting for spacing protocols because of covid-19, he said.

Most of the 30 or so people at the city-sanctioned Safe Camp south of Seven Hills Court and Huntsville Road are staying at shelters or hotels, Pearson said. Volunteers with MayDay Community Kitchen continue to take food to the site, where people expect to pick up meals at 12:30 p.m. daily, he said.

7 Hills expanded its day center operation at St. James Missionary Baptist Church on Willow Avenue to Saturday and today, in addition to its usual hours from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays.

Jessica Andrews, chief executive officer of 7 Hills, said the organization is handling the accounting for the $50,000 and partnering with other agencies to get the work done.

“We’re working hard to collaborate with as many people as possible to keep people warm and sheltered right now,” she said. “It’s definitely an all-hands-on-deck approach, with the main goal to get as many people as we can indoors.”

An historic event

The National Weather Service in Tulsa predicts a potentially record-level winter event for the region. A cumulative foot of snow could land in Northwest Arkansas in the coming days. That’s after temperatures plummeted starting last week, with wind chills dipping the air into single digits.

The miserable cold will continue into the week, with no high temperatures projected above freezing for days.

Prolonged exposure to extreme cold can trigger hypothermia or frostbite. Hypothermia occurs when the body’s temperature drops below 95 degrees, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees. Frostbite can cause permanent damage to affected areas, typically the extremities.

Fayetteville’s Community Resources Division requested a reallocation of its budget in October to put toward a winter response to homelessness. The money comes out of the division’s $741,531 budget for last year, said Yolanda Fields, community resources director.

The division operates a number of programs through the Community Development Block Grant program, including housing rehabilitation, taxi services and Ranger’s Pet Food Bank. Fewer residents last year made requests for housing rehabilitation out of concern for people coming into their homes during a pandemic, freeing up part of the budget, Fields said.

Any change to the budget has to go through the federal government, and the division was notified last week the change to use budget money for a winter response had been approved, she said.

“We weren’t able to utilize the money with our regular projects because of covid,” Fields said. “We could’ve rolled it over, but we needed it for this purpose.”

Covering expenses

The most expensive part of the cold weather response is getting people in hotels, Robinett said. Hotels are offering good rates, but they still have their own costs to cover, he said.

The Salvation Army’s warming centers, which are separate from its shelters and can hold more people safely, have stayed open daily since November. Normally, the centers only would open if the wind chill hits 34 degrees or below.

The money for hotel vouchers, transportation expenses and shelter operation will help the organization serve people through the cold snap, Robinett said. Staff and volunteers increased efforts last week when blistering cold hit and also have to contend with the several inches of snow projected for the area, he said.

“In a situation like what we’re facing right now, the impact is life and death,” Robinett said.

After the cold spell is behind the region, Pearson said, he plans to convene with people living at Safe Camp on how best to use the remaining money available for supplies and services there. The hope is to keep it going as long as is necessary. The camp follows a community-based model in which residents have a say in what goes on.

“It’s about what they need, not about what we think they should get,” Pearson said.