FORT SMITH, Ark. — On Tuesday, April 19, Fort Smith’s Board of Directors voted unanimously to approve a planned zoning district off South 6th and South I Street.
The approval allows Next Step Homeless Services (NSHS) to move from its current downtown location off North 6th and B Street and build a new facility and housing.
However, the approval did not come without concerns from businesses that neighbor the newly rezoned location. Neighbors were concerned about some of the issues they currently face, including vandalism and trespassing. Bringing in NSHS to the area increased some of these concerns along with what the potential increase in homeless traffic to the area might bring.
Board members at NSHS heard those concerns and made some changes to their proposal that ended up being what helped the city feel comfortable with their decision to proceed. This included the closing of the current location once the new facility is built and no longer offering walk-in or emergency day shelter services.
The new four-acre location will be fenced and have a single entry point through NSHS’s new facility which will house their office spaces, a community kitchen, and serve as a meeting location for caseworkers to meet with clients.
“After hearing some of those discussions and figuring out, ‘okay, we might have a path forward for some of the other homelessness issues that we’re dealing with’, I think we looked at it and said, ‘this seems like a good spot for this type of service’,” said Neal Martin, At-Large Position 7 Fort Smith board member.
Once at its new location, NSHS is shifting to a more obtainable Model of helping reduce homelessness. The property will have 30 individual housing units behind the facility, and anyone who lives there will be selected by NSHS caseworkers. The program will last approximately six months and individuals in the program will adhere to policies and guidelines set by NSHS caseworkers to work towards learning life skills, maintaining sobriety, and getting back on their feet as contributing members of the community.
To get there, NSHS still has a few more hurdles to overcome. Right now, the main priority is acquiring federal grant money and fundraising to purchase the property and begin initial construction on the property.
“It’s going to require grants and it’s going to require, literally, going to business and pursuing places that might support us and be willing to help,” said Sharon Chapman, Executive Director at NSHS. “It is a big piece of money for services that are going to be quality and something that we’ll be proud of and the city will too.”
The Fort Smith Board of Directors is holding a special session tonight, Tuesday, April 26, at which NSHS is requesting federal community development funding. Their request is for approximately $620,000. At this time, they are recommended to receive approximately $300,000 which will cover the cost of purchasing the property and some of the initial construction fees.
Going forward, the City of Fort Smith is encouraged by the direction NSHS is taking with their new facility and sees it as a model to help homelessness in Fort Smith.
“I think we’ve got a better long-term path forward,” said Martin. “Hopefully we can decrease that homelessness population and get them where they’re learning life skills, where they’re learning to pay rent, pay mortgage, get a job, those kinds of things.”
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