FAYETTEVILLE -- The Salvation Army opened its expanded shelter just in time for a blast of cold weather.
The shelter's first night open was Monday. Staff at the shelter try to accommodate as many people as they can when the temperature drops below 32 degrees, and it got down to the 20s Tuesday night, said Capt. Patrick Connelly, Northwest Arkansas area commander for the Salvation Army.
"It was kind of like a stress test for what we could experience moving forward," he said. "We're happy to be in there and be able to shelter and feed folks on site."
A place to go
Work on the expansion began in spring 2022. The shelter closed in June so crews could finish. Regional organizations pulled together to provide refuge for residents while the shelter was closed.
The shelter's overall capacity has grown from 26 to 46 beds, according to the organization. The women's dorm went from eight to 16 beds, the men's dorm from 12 to 18 beds and family dorms from six to 12 beds. The family dorms have been converted to apartments with private bathrooms and a shared kitchen.
In addition, the rehabilitation program has gone from 20 to 26 beds. It moved to what was previously an activity center and has a lounge, shared kitchen and restrooms. The activity center is behind the main building in the same parking lot at 219 W. 15th St.
The cost of the renovation project was about $1.7 million. Financial support came from the Alice L. Walton Foundation, Willard & Pat Walker Charitable Foundation, Roberts Family Fund, Excellerate Foundation, Tyson Family Foundation, Fayetteville Central United Methodist Church and a number of anonymous donors.
Ryan Hough, 40, has been staying at the Salvation Army's rehabilitation program since the end of March. He's been sober for eight months and said he wouldn't have been able to do it without the organization's help.
Hough has a job at the Tyson Foods Fayetteville Complex and is saving to get his own apartment. He said it's still a struggle to keep himself together, but having a safe, stable place to rest his head allowed him to figure out what path his life would take, he said.
"At that point, it's up to the person," Hough said. "Either you want to stay in addiction or you want to stop while you have an opportunity to be sheltered and fed. It just comes down to how many times you've hit rock bottom. If you want to live or die, that's what it comes down to."
Hough said he never thought he'd get to this point in his life. He battled addiction for nearly 20 years and spent time in and out of jail. He recognized the importance Salvation Army has in the lives of people trying to recover and said he was glad to see the remodeling finished. The place is especially important this time of year for people to get out of the elements and have a place to go during the holidays, he said.
"This is a big source in this area for people to get shelter and food on a daily basis," Hough said.
Next person, and next ...
The Salvation Army expansion isn't the only operation adding overnight beds in the city. 7Hills Homeless Center plans to convert the dorms at its Walker Family Residential Community south of Huntsville Road into an overnight shelter with 64 beds.
7Hills is using a portion of about $1.6 million in federal American Rescue Plan money from the city to do the project. Joe Coultas, shelter services director for 7Hills, said both projects are needed to provide adequate overnight shelter for residents experiencing homelessness. Coultas served as shelter director at Salvation Army before coming to 7Hills.
The day center at 7Hills sees about 100 people a day, many of whom end up staying at Salvation Army overnight, Coultas said.
Seven Hills is still working on the time table for its project, but it plans to start with 16 beds to give staff a chance to be trained correctly. The 24/7 shelter will have case managers available to work with clients, as well as security personnel.
"It's going to be able to get even more people in a place that's safe, where we can hopefully address their immediate needs and get them set up to focus on their future with housing and things like that," Coultas said.
Homelessness has dropped overall in the state, but risen in Northwest Arkansas, according to data from the National Alliance to End Homelessness. In 2007, the state reported 3,836 homeless individuals compared to 2,459 last year, a 36% drop.
Within the same time frame, Northwest Arkansas reported 279 residents experiencing homelessness in the region compared to 343 last year. The unsheltered population, meaning those not staying in emergency shelter or transitional housing, rose 186%.
The most recent count taken this year recorded 436 people experiencing homelessness, 178 of whom were unsheltered.
Connelly said the work of Salvation Army and its partner organizations will not be done with completion of the expansion project. Housing is more expensive in Northwest Arkansas and the population is increasing faster than in other parts of the state, leaving many with no place to go, he said.
Nonprofit groups like the Salvation Army are doing what they can with limited capacity and money, Connelly said. Even with the expansion, not everyone who needs shelter overnight will get it, he said.
"It's easy for us to miss the trees for the forest. But the reality is that in the work we do, we have to do for one what we wish we could do for all," Connelly said. "Each one we're able to move from crisis into stability and onto thriving is a win we have to celebrate, and recognize we just freed a bed for the next person."
How to help
To volunteer or donate, reach out to the following organizations:
CREW (Collaborative response for extreme weather)
7Hills Homeless Center, 1832 S. School Ave., Fayetteville
Salvation Army, 219 W. 15th St., Fayetteville
Source: NWA Democrat-Gazette
Salvation Army, 3305 S.W. I St., Bentonville
Genesis Church, 205 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
Emergency hotline for assistance: (479) 879-4467
Additionally, those seeking shelter can call 211 locally to be connected to resources.