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Real Life Church ready to provide shelter during winter season

With winter upon us, the city of Mountain Home, the Food Bank of North Central Arkansas, and Real Life Church have teamed up to make sure Mountain Home’s most vulnerable have a warm place to sleep when the weather turns frigid outside.

With help, Real Life Church has developed a system to convert its auditorium in its Reach Center into a temporary homeless shelter for the winter season.

“We had a spell last year. Last winter was a real hard winter,” said Mayor Hillrey Adams. “We had pretty heavy snow and some frigid temperatures. When that happened last year, I got with Jeff Quick, and we had a series of meetings at the Food Bank. Jeff orchestrated with the Office of Emergency Services, we had churches, we had the city, we had several different people, and we went through the process of what’s going to happen next.”

Before last year’s meeting and the setup of Mountain Home’s emergency plan, the city relied on the Salvation Army to take in the homeless during bad weather periods.

Last year’s snowstorm caught many officials in Mountain Home off guard, including the Salvation Army, which was in the middle of a command change as the 2021 blizzard hit the area.

The lapse in preparedness and communication left the city scrambling to provide shelter for its homeless population.

“We said ‘we don’t want to get caught like this again. How can we prevent it?’” Adams said. “So, we put some stuff in place where if the temperature reached a certain point and the forecast called for an extended period, then certain things would go into place.”

A part of that fail-safe would be the Reach Center at Real Life Church, which opened the doors to its temporary shelter for the first time in Feb. of last year.

The church, which also offers courses through the Reach Center to help the homeless get back on their feet, has up to 40 cots available in its auditorium to house those in need.

“We got a phone call from Jeff Quick and Mayor Adams wondering what people were offering and what we could do for the community since the temperatures were going to drop into the teens,” said Jennifer Daniel of Real Life Church. “We opened last Feb. as a temporary shelter. So, we opened then as an emergency shelter and had that experience. When it came up this time, we had met with Jeff Quick as far as what’s the emergency plan, not necessarily for winter, but if an emergency happens.”

For this month’s snow spell, the church provided shelter to 19 people. The shelter, which is open from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m., works with the Food Bank to provide hot meals, a shower, and warm clothing to those that choose to come in.

The Food Bank also opens its doors to the homeless during extreme weather from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., before transporting those in need to a cot at the Reach Center.

“Our congregation has donated blankets, pillows, and food,” said Kirby Brown of Real Life Church. “We were able to get them some warmer clothes. We have a shower and laundry available, so we were able to offer a shower, and then we did their laundry for them while they were here.”

Roughly 50 volunteers, including CareCenter Ministries, who provided security at night, have participated in this year’s opening of Reach Center’s shelter.

Real Life also took the opportunity to help those who came in from the cold with job hunts and file paperwork needed to receive benefits.

“The goal behind this is still the same as with the Reach Center,” Brown said. “It’s to try and get people out of the situations they’re in the long term, and there were a few that were able to plug into some different programs in the community through being here that is going to help them out.”

Getting a complete picture of the homeless situation in Northern Arkansas and Mountain Home is difficult. Data is sparse and often outdated in this more remote section of the country.

The Arkansas Department of Education is currently tracking 151 homeless people in Baxter County for 2022. On the other hand, the National Alliance to End Homeless, famous for tracking homeless populations in the U.S., tracked 733 homeless individuals across the balance of the state (AR-503), which includes Baxter County, though it’s unclear how many of those individuals are within the county itself.

The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness has more updated information dating to 2020 but still has gaps in data for Northern Arkansas.

As of 2020, there were currently 2,366 homeless individuals being tracked in Arkansas by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Arkansas has seen a decline in its homeless population since its last major peak of 4,214 homeless individuals in 2012.

“We talked to a school counselor in regards to this, and gave us a number of approximately 70 students in the system are homeless or couch hopping,” Daniel said. “We were blown away by that number, and that’s just students in our district. And I’ve talked to several other people, and their estimates are around 200 people. I don’t think the majority of this community realizes there are over 200 people homeless in our area.”

The Reach Center shelter is currently closed for the week because of warmer weather. For those wishing to volunteer or donate, please contact Real Life Church at (870) 424-3483.

To contact the Food Bank of North Central Arkansas, please contact (870) 499-7565.

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