Conway will open its first 24-hour emergency homeless shelter within the next two months — after five years of working to make it a reality, a community organizer said Friday.
The shelter will be built at 1116 Gum St. and is expected to open in early 2023, said Melissa Allen, director of community programs at the Community Action Program for Central Arkansas.
“We are really excited to have this groundbreaking ceremony and tear down the current structure. There is a lot of good work that will be needed to create a beautiful shelter,” Allen said. “The ceilings are going to be raised. The structure is going to be beautiful because our homeless population deserves to be honored by having a nice facility to rest in.”
Conway Mayor Bart Castleberry made a commitment five years ago that the Faulkner County community would have a shelter to serve its growing homeless population.
“Mayor Bart Castleberry wanted to make sure we had resources and access to our homeless neighbors,” said Shawanna Rodgers, community development administrator for the Community Development Block Grant program. “The concept has been in talks for a few years and we are delighted to have CAPCA on board to ensure round-the-clock operation.”
Allen said a large coalition of community leaders and nonprofits have worked tirelessly to serve the homeless population and make shelter a reality.
Although there are several organizations that provide services to the homeless population, there are no homeless shelters in Conway.
Conway’s homeless population has doubled in the past three years, Allen said.
A recent CAPCA survey of homelessness estimated the area’s homeless population at over 900, including nearly 700 children who are homeless in the community’s school system.
“This population has been steadily growing and our community’s homeless coalition has worked over the years trying to get a homeless shelter approved and we have never been able to get a location. approved,” Allen said.
Conway City Council voted unanimously at its March 8 regular meeting to move forward with the project and approved a $1.8 million bid from BMD Builders of Beebe.
BMD was the lowest bidder among three competitors for the project, which will include the renovation of an existing 2,661 square foot building on the property and the construction of a new 4,881 square foot building.
The council approved the purchase of the property in January for $165,000.
The majority of funding is provided by the Community Development Block Grant using CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) money. The city has earmarked up to $700,000 from its general fund for the project.
The shelter will accommodate up to 40 people and will include a day-use resource centre. The center will have free Internet access, laundries, toilets and showers in addition to a large courtyard.
The day shelter will employ case managers to help homeless clients find education opportunities, skills assessment and a path to securing housing, Allen said.
“Having a safe haven where they can have a meal and a shower is very important,” Allen said.
A post on the city’s Facebook page about the emergency shelter has garnered more than 100 comments – mostly positive – and has been shared nearly 600 times.
“Yes! Thank you so much for having the vision and compassion to help our homeless neighbors,” Crystal Certain said in the comments.
Benjamin Clifton gave a “Bravo!!” to city action. Clifton was homeless for seven years, he said in the post.
“I know from personal experience how important shelters are for homeless people,” Clifton said. “I wholeheartedly applaud this action by Conway City Council. It is a great first step for the City of Conway in caring for its homeless people.”
Tracie Gentry applauded the city, but said the shelter should offer more than 40 beds.
Kathleen Ruther said the homeless shelter was “one of the best things done for this town”.
“It will save someone’s life,” she commented. “Great job Conway!!”
Some have disputed that the refuge is located in a less affluent area.
“Instead of putting it in a big enough area, they put it in the low-income neighborhood and that’s little,” Terri McCuien said. “It’s the abandoned apartments behind Hobby Lobby. While a great move, it certainly could have been more. It’s just not wanted on the other side of town.”
CAPCA develops all policies and procedures, creates forms and guidelines for the shelter.
Funds will still need to be raised to cover the running costs of the facility.
“We hope to keep annual operating costs below $500,000,” Allen said. “This would only be possible with a strong volunteer base and partnerships with local colleges. The costs could double if this does not happen. We have an amazing community that is extremely supportive of the homeless. Lots of prayers and heartbreak have been going to be one of Conway’s most treasured things.