Conway will break ground within the next two months on its first 24-hour emergency homeless shelter — 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 scheduled to open in the beginning of 2023, said Melissa Allen, community programs director at Community Action Program for Central Arkansas.
“We’re really excited to get that groundbreaking ceremony and some demolition going on the current structure. There’s a lot of good work that will go into making 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 be able to rest in.”
Conway Mayor Bart Castleberry made the 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 had access available for our unhoused neighbors,” said Shawanna Rodgers, community development administrator for the Community Development Block Grant program. “The concept has been in talks for the last few years and we’re thrilled CAPCA is on board to provide 24-hour operation.”
Allen said a large coalition of community leaders and nonprofit organizations have worked tirelessly for serve the homeless population and make the shelter a reality.
While 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 homeless survey estimated the area’s homeless population to be over 900, including nearly 700 homeless children in the community’s school system.
“That population has been ever growing and our community’s homeless coalition has worked through the years to try to get a homeless shelter approved and we’ve never been able to obtain an approved location,” Allen said.
The Conway City Council unanimously voted at its March 8 regular meeting to go forward with the project and approved a $1.8 million bid from BMD Builders of Beebe.
BMD was the lowest bidder out of three competitors for the project, which will include remodeling an existing 2,661-square-foot building on the property and constructing a new 4,881-square-foot building.
The council approved buying the property in January for $165,000.
The majority of the funding is provided by the Community Development Block Grant using Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act money. The city has earmarked up to $700,000 from its general fund for the project.
The shelter will have sleeping space for up to 40 people and will include a day-use resource center. The center will have free internet access, laundry rooms, restrooms and showers in addition to a large courtyard.
The day shelter will staff case managers to help the homeless clients find educational opportunities, skills assessment and a path to obtaining housing, Allen said.
“It’s very important to have a safe haven where they can get a meal and a shower,” Allen said.
A post on the city’s Facebook page about the emergency shelter garnered more than 100 comments — mostly positive — and was shared nearly 600 times.
“Yes! Thank you so much for having the vision and compassion to help our unhoused neighbors,” Crystal Certain said in the comments.
Benjamin Clifton gave a “Bravo!!” to the city’s action. Clifton was in and out of homelessness for seven years, he said in the post.
“I know from personal experience how important shelters are to the homeless,” Clifton said. “I heartily applaud this action by the Conway City Council. This is a good first step by the City of Conway in caring for its homeless.”
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 being done for this city.”
“This will save someone’s life,” she commented. “Great job Conway!!”
Some took issue with the shelter being located in a less-affluent area.
“Instead of it being put in a large enough area, they put it in the low income neighborhood and it’s little,” Terri McCuien said. “They are the abandoned apartments over behind Hobby Lobby. While it’s a great initiative, it definitely could have been more. It’s just not wanted on the other side of town.”
CAPCA is developing all the policies and procedures, creating the forms and guidelines for the shelter.
Money will still need to be raised to cover the facility’s operating costs.
“We are hopeful to keep the annual operating costs under $500,000,” Allen said. “That would only be possible with a strong volunteer base and partnerships with local colleges. The costs could double if that doesn’t happen. We have an amazing community that is extremely supportive of the homeless. A lot of prayers and heartache has gone into this. It’s going to be one of the treasured things in Conway.”