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Jonesboro's Heart for the Homeless
By Emily Merrell, Photography by Audrey Poff

The economic fallout of the pandemic has led to an increase in the amount of people experiencing homelessness everywhere, and Jonesboro is no exception. The City of Jonesboro has been working hard to address the needs of people experiencing homelessness, while still following all guidelines to remain safe in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Homeless Task Force, which was established by former Jonesboro Mayor Harold Perrin in February 2020, is currently working on opening a new long-term shelter. While the task force was founded by former Mayor Perrin, current Jonesboro Mayor Harold Copenhaver is also on board with the task force and is doing everything he and his office can to help facilitate the opening of a new shelter. The HUB (Helping the Underserved Belong) Homeless Resource Center has also adapted and expanded its services to safely meet the needs of people experiencing homelessness, and the Veterans Village project, which will provide shelter for homeless veterans, is under construction.

Dana Moore, chairman of the city’s Homeless Task Force, said that the group came together to solve the growing problem of homelessness in Jonesboro and provide resources for people experiencing homelessness.

“Former Mayor Perrin and I have worked on several projects in the past concerning homelessness in Jonesboro,” said Moore, adding that Perrin has a huge heart for Jonesboro and its citizens. “I believe when you combine heart and leadership, a problem-solving committee takes shape. Our ultimate goal is to have a facility that provides longer term shelter, as well as the tools needed to move from homelessness to sustainability in permanent housing of their own. Our goal is for every guest to be provided the guidance needed to exit homelessness permanently.”

Moore said that there are many faces of homelessness and that there are several common misconceptions about people in that situation.

“Common misconceptions of those experiencing homelessness are that they are all drug addicts or just people who do not want to work, and that is simply not true,” she said. “While this does seem to be an obvious answer, the issue of homelessness is a much deeper issue. There are many homeless families who have never been in trouble and who are in secure employment but for some unforeseen hardship, have found themselves not able to retain stable housing for their families.

“Another misconception is that all homeless are unsheltered and on the street. There are many faces of homelessness. There are families living in homeless shelters, families doubled up in one apartment and families trying to live in hotels with weekly rates.”

With the task force forming last February to help homeless individuals and families, the group only had about a month of experience before COVID-19 hit the United States and drastically transformed both the needs of people experiencing homelessness and the methods that the task force itself could use to assist the homeless population. For nearly a year now, the Homeless Task Force and The HUB have been helping some of Jonesboro’s most vulnerable individuals survive through the pandemic, which has intensified financial hardships for many people. Task force members include Moore, Casey Kidd, Jeff Steiling, Gary Harpole, Jerry Halsey Jr., Gina Cupp, Jimmie Lambert, Gena Wells, Josh Wilcoxson, Jana Burnett, Kevin Hodges, Kim Chase, Micheal Sullivan, Rachel Thompson, Stephanie Berry, Tracy McGaha, Vincent Gore, Harold Perrin and Regina Burkett.

Kidd says she believes the number of people experiencing homelessness in Jonesboro has greatly increased because of COVID-19, although it can be difficult to get an accurate count of the homeless population.

“Since there are various stages of homelessness, the numbers can range from close to 20 to over 250,” said Kidd. “Homelessness can be anyone who is literally living on the street, couch surfing, at risk of being evicted in under 30 days or even fleeing domestic violence. The way that we can determine an estimate but most likely not a true count is through the HUD’s required annual Point in Time (PIT) Count, which occurs on Jan. 28. While this does give us an idea, we truly believe that the numbers are most likely much greater.

“The homeless population does struggle with trust due to various situations they have encountered, so they do not always want to participate in the count. In the 2020 PIT Count, 23 individuals were living unsheltered, 13 staying in a shelter and 254 children were identified as homeless in the three school districts in Jonesboro. We expect the numbers we capture on Jan. 28 to be even higher due to the impacts of COVID-19. This count is so important, because it does impact funding that can come into our area, but we want to make sure that individuals participating know what services are available to them. They need to know that we are here to help them with obstacles they are facing.”

With such an increase in homelessness and the added challenges of the pandemic, The HUB, a nonprofit organization founded in April 2017, has adapted to best meet the needs of people experiencing homelessness. Kim Chase, director of The HUB, said that while the facility has never closed its doors, The HUB has had to make several changes in order to safely assist Jonesboro’s homeless population with employment opportunities, transportation, clothing and meals.

“In response to the shutdown that happened in March 2020, most HUB volunteers stopped coming to the office, and currently The HUB is being operated by two volunteers and one staff member,” said Chase. “In-person appointments were replaced with telephone appointments. Most resources, such as ordering social security cards, must be accessed online. It was at this point that addressing food insecurity became a priority.

“Food pantries closed, clothing closets closed, as did most offices. The former HUB director approached a local church and applied for a grant to begin the Feed Local program that is still operating. Currently on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., hot lunches are provided by local restaurants Sue’s Kitchen and Gina’s Place. These meals are provided outside rather than in the office, and masks are required, as well as social distancing. During the lunch hour, seasonal items and a little extra food are given out. To date, The HUB has provided almost 1,000 lunches.”

Chase says that The HUB still provides the same services, they have just had to change the way they are provided. As much as possible, The HUB uses the internet and encourages guests to have needs met during the lunch hours.

While these services are vital to helping people experiencing homelessness, the Homeless Task Force believes that a long-term shelter is necessary to protect the homeless population from the dangers of living on the street and to assist in getting individuals set up with stable housing and transition out of homelessness. The task force is working to establish a location and begin construction on a long-term shelter, which will serve as a one-stop-shop for people experiencing homelessness to have their needs met.

“The Task Force is still working on some of the programs we plan to make available to our guests,” said Moore. “We do not want to duplicate services; we want to utilize the services already in place in our community, as well as add new services based on need. We want to alleviate the barriers that our guests have faced in the past in order to move from homelessness to permanent housing. That could include job readiness training and classes in life skills, parenting, addiction rehabilitation, mental health options, financial management, job training and job placement. We plan to offer individual and family case management. The shelter will provide living space for male, female and family units. There is green space, fenced in, for a playground for children and space for a garden, as well.”

In addition to the task force’s plan for a long-term shelter, the City of Jonesboro also has a project under construction, Veterans Village. This shelter, which will provide resources and housing for military service veterans who are experiencing homelessness, is currently under construction at Allis Street and Aggie Road. Veterans Village received a $100,000 grant in October 2020 from the Sunderland Foundation and is also working with Beck Pride, an organization that helps veterans transition to civilian life.

Moore says that support and help from the Jonesboro community will be crucial to ensure the success of the shelter and to assist people experiencing homelessness.

“I know it is commonly said ‘it takes a village,’ but there is so much truth in that statement when you think about it,” she said. “We will need our community to come together and fully support a new long-term homeless shelter. There will be many opportunities for everyone who would like to help. There will definitely be fundraising opportunities very soon. We will be applying for every grant available, but grants will not pay for some things that will be crucial to the shelter and our guests’ success. We will also need volunteers on a day-to-day basis. We will have 24-hour staff, but a solid volunteer base will add much-needed support.”

For more information about the Homeless Task Force, contact Dana Moore at dmoore@swfamily.org. For more information about The HUB, located at 711 Union St., call (870) 333-5731 or visit hubjonesboro.org.