Direct social services are key to Fayetteville, Arkansas’ homeless initiatives

photo by: Fayetteville Community Resources Department

Fayetteville Community Resources Department staff member Marion Abboud, who's seated here, assists community members during a "CDBG in the Park" event. The department provides a number of direct social services for clients in Fayetteville, including programs that are intended to assist people experiencing homelessness.

Average household income, population size, the presence of a major university — Lawrence and Fayetteville have plenty of things in common. Both cities have populations just under 100,000, are home to major universities – Kansas and Arkansas – and in 2022 had a similar percentage of cost-burdened households.

But when the Journal-World visited Fayetteville in early November, it was because of one commonality in particular — the issue of homelessness.

Before visiting Fayetteville’s Pallet community, New Beginnings NWA, and the city’s 7hills Homeless Center, the Journal-World’s first stop in Arkansas was actually a meeting with Yolanda Fields. Fields is the City of Fayetteville’s community resources director and the leader behind a number of city-run social service programs that directly aid the homeless population.

The message from Fields was that broadly speaking, both communities are simultaneously tackling the same challenges, even if there are some ways in which the roles of city staff here and there are different.

Comparing Lawrence and Fayetteville

When it comes to homelessness, the biggest difference between Lawrence and Fayetteville could be each city’s willingness to take a direct-service role. Homeless Programs Coordinator Misty Bosch-Hastings, the Lawrence leader whose role is perhaps the closest counterpart to Fields’ with the City of Fayetteville, recently told the Journal-World that the City of Lawrence has realized that there are other entities better suited for administering direct-service support for individuals experiencing homelessness.

But in Fayetteville, direct services are part and parcel to how Fields’ Community Resources Department functions. The department offers a significant list of social services, in fact, including housing rehabilitation and redevelopment programs, a pet food bank designed to keep families and their pets together during times of hardship, and a transportation aid program for elderly and disabled residents.

Lawrencians could argue that’s happening here at least in some capacity through city-run initiatives like Camp New Beginnings, the support site for people experiencing homelessness in North Lawrence, where the city provides access to showers, restrooms and drinking water. But there’s a difference between that and facilitating not just one program but many of them that involve direct case management and other wrap-around supportive services.

As to similarities, there are a few. Parks, wooded areas and other outdoor spaces have become common locations for camping in both communities. Much like the City of Lawrence’s new process for making contact with people who are camping outdoors, Fayetteville’s police department has created a new “crisis intervention response team” with social workers on staff that can be sent out in the right scenarios.

Fields said Fayetteville has also found itself positioned as an area hub for social services, because many of them are located within walking distance of one another. Lawrence, meanwhile, has developed a perception among some community members that it’s now a destination for homeless individuals from outside the area. Community leaders like Lawrence Police Chief Rich Lockhart have confirmed instances where law enforcement agencies in other counties were transporting homeless individuals to Lawrence and dropping them off here.

“It’s a regional problem, but it seems like Fayetteville is where things are available more so, and so people are coming,” Fields said. “But it’s not like people are becoming homeless and are here (already); some are coming because they somehow became homeless and they know they can come here and there are services.”

How the Community Resources Department does the work

The bulk of the Fayetteville Community Resources Department’s funding capacity comes from Community Development Block Grant dollars and other grants. In terms of city funding, Fields said the budget really only covers the cost of office space and utilities, 75% of her salary and a handful of other full-time positions.

Despite that, though, Fields’ department also has the added benefit of its Public Facility Lease Program, another Community Development Block Grant-funded resource. The program is a key way that the City of Fayetteville supports local nonprofits — across four buildings the city has owned since the 1980s, the department can lease physical spaces for nonprofits at no cost and are only required to perform regular upkeep and maintenance.

Because so much of that work hinges on retaining vital grant support, Fields said she has to “bear the burden” of being a gatekeeper for those funds, a role she’s refined after more than two decades in her position. Agencies like 7hills Homeless Center and New Beginnings NWA also fit in as pieces of the puzzle.

“Community gathering” events bring together some of those agencies all in one place, Fields added. A recent event featured a clothing closet, haircuts and vaccinations from the local health department, similar to the Lawrence Public Library’s annual Community Resource Fair. Fields said playing that role of connector is one thing her department does especially well.

photo by: Fayetteville Community Resources Department

Fayetteville Mayor Lioneld Jordan stands next to a sign detailing the numerous programs facilitated through the city’s Community Resources Department.

“There just isn’t a way to have one entity be that everything answer to all — it just doesn’t work,” Fields said. “For me, my big thing is being out there connecting people.”

As far as in-house offerings go, the department’s Hearth Program is likely the most expansive. It helps individuals and families experiencing homelessness get placed in permanent supportive housing, assists with rent and utility costs and tailors case management appointments to individual needs on a weekly basis — or even more frequently, if necessary. The program has provided housing assistance and case management services to 215 participants — 106 adults and 109 children — since February 2016.

Compare that to the number of people served at New Beginnings NWA, which has 20 slots, and it’s clear that Hearth makes a significant dent in the number of people currently experiencing homelessness, and still would be if New Beginnings NWA had as many slots as are planned for The Village in Lawrence, which is slated for 50 cabins.

But that isn’t to say that each and every program participant is successful just by merit of participating, Fields said. Instead, results vary from person to person.

“Not everyone’s going to be successful,” Fields said. “We do have some clients that have been with us since 2016, we have others (that) either moved back where they came from or we’ve had somebody pass away. We have some, unfortunately, that have been arrested because they go back to doing the things that they have been doing. I always tell people that doesn’t mean they failed — that just means that people are human. We can’t guarantee that everybody that goes in is going to be successful with the program.”

Fields provided the Journal-World with a detailed list of the various services available through the program, organized into several categories, including home management, health, mental health and safety, food, government assistance, and employment and education. Fields noted that even that detailed list is not all-inclusive, and not all Hearth participants receive every single service listed. Instead, service provision is tailored to each individual to support them in achieving their self-identified needs and goals.

“We are providing housing in the sense that if we weren’t there paying their rent, providing them with rental deposits, utility deposits, they wouldn’t be living in (their housing),” Fields added. “…To afford it and to provide them the stability by being there; the wrap-around case management is there, which is what they would have if we owned a facility that had units.”

Familiar challenges

Fayetteville and Lawrence are not unique in the challenges they face, whether they’re exact parallels to one another or not. The same goes for communities across the country, where there’s often yet another familiar refrain — what if not everybody wants to be housed?

In Fayetteville, Fields said that’s a sentiment advocates have encountered while working to update the community’s “by-name list” — a roster of people experiencing homelessness who are actively receiving services from agencies. Douglas County is in the process of putting together its own by-name list.

“We have found that some individuals will … get on the by-name list and then we try to contact them, either they never respond or they come in, do the intake and don’t respond,” Fields said. “Not everybody that’s on the by-name list really wants to be in a housing situation, and I know some people might say, ‘I can’t understand why they wouldn’t.'”

It’s a hesitation for some, Fields said, because getting into a social service program usually comes with rules and other stringent guidelines they otherwise wouldn’t be beholden to.

The ultimate goal of bolstering the affordable housing inventory is similarly a constant challenge for both cities. But Fayetteville also needs about 1,000 new units of housing annually to keep up with the city’s projected population growth and is working to add more new housing to the development pipeline.

But Fields said building more affordable housing, or even just more new housing in general, isn’t the only means to that end — maintaining the affordable housing that already exists is just as crucial.

“It doesn’t all have to be new, because a lot of the folks that we work with — whether they’re seniors on a fixed income or they’re disabled or it’s a family whose (grandmother) left them this house — (they might not) make enough money to fix the roof or the plumbing or whatever,” Fields said. “Well guess what? If none of those things get fixed, I’m going to end up homeless.”

Overall, Fields said she takes issue with the notion that homelessness can be ended completely — it’s just not realistic. And yet she said some folks have the idea that if her department does all of these things, at some point in the future homelessness will be gone.

For Fayetteville — and for Lawrence, too — Fields said it’s probably a better idea to liken homelessness to something that everyone has experienced: the common cold. It’s an analogy she’s shared with city leaders in Fayetteville before.

“The common cold has been with us for ‘eons,'” Fields said. “We’ve not been able to eradicate that, so what have we done? We have created industries that help people when they do get a cold. We sell tissues, cough drops, all the things to help people get better. When we say ‘ending homelessness,’ that’s what we mean. That’s kind of what we’re trying to do, the same thing, is to provide a process to help someone through that situation.”

— This is the last story in a series focused on the nearest city to Lawrence with an operating community of Pallet cabins — New Beginnings NWA in Fayetteville, Arkansas.


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