Our second of three stories from some of the volunteers who participated in the NW Arkansas Homeless Census.  Results of the census were just released and the number of homeless in NW Arkansas has dramatically increased since 2009.

From Brad Melton

I knew they were out there, but I didn’t know where.  I knew they were close, but I didn’t know how near. I knew they were out of sight, but I didn’t know it was only because I wasn’t looking.

We began early at 05:30 on this cold Friday morning in Northwest Arkansas, well before the day shelters, libraries, and handful of services would open. My good friend Ryan Riley and I carpooled from the Bentonville/Rogers area and arrived down South at the Seven Hills Homeless Day Shelter near the University of Arkansas campus in Fayetteville. There, we met up with our friends Jon Woodward, Michael Drager, Scott Page, Dr. Kevin Fitzpatrick, four Fayetteville police officers, and a local newspaper reporter. We divided up census forms, checked our flashlights, split into two groups, and proceeded to the first of many campsites.

They were among trees and weeds, alongside railroad tracks and drainage ditches, behind parks and dark alleys, and beside residences and commerce. All were within city limits of this thriving Northwest Arkansas community. The largest camp was on a caring gentleman’s property, behind his place of business. There were over a half dozen tents and a camper van. It reminded me of vacation campgrounds that my family had enjoyed. Except, for them, this was no vacation. There was no tourist destination to escape to and no time of rest and recreation to return from. For them, this was home.

Many of the “campers” we saw this early morning had modern tents. And many had a hodge-podge of extra reinforcement to insulate them from the cold and wet. Tarps were spread over many of the tents and twigs, leaves, and garbage pressed up to the sides in an attempt to block the wind. But one man’s campsite was strikingly simple. Old tarps draped over some kind of structure that framed a barely 3 feet tall homemade pup tent. (It seems odd calling such a thing homemade when it was made in such a “home” as this.); Some kind of makeshift flooring on cinder blocks separated the man from the cold hard ground. His site was inside a tree line, butted up to a tall chain link fence overgrown with vine. On the other side, a drainage ditch and dark back alley separated his home from local businesses. A few yards to the West, the hustle and bustle of early morning South Fayetteville traffic buzzed by.

A couple thoughts struck me as Jon proceeded to interview this man. It was not the location or condition of his campsite that made me pause. Although, I will remember both well. No, the sobering reality that I will not soon forget, was that this gentleman was pushing 70 years old and had lived the last 10 of those years on this very spot -on the cold hard ground, between a chain link fence and drainage ditch, behind local business, and near the unknowing daily commuters of South Fayetteville.

Even though the temperature would later rise to an unseasonably warm day, it was still what I considered to be very cold in the pre-dawn hours of this Friday morning. At each campsite, after we had finished our search and interviews, we would be welcomed by the warmth of a waiting Fayetteville police cruiser. But our friends in the trees were afforded no such luxury. I image more than a few of them would have coveted my hard plastic seat behind the cage and shield in our toasty warm patrol car. Fortunately, we learned that many campers on this cold morning were taking advantage of warmer temporary shelter. Emphasis on the word “temporary”.

After we made our rounds, we headed back to Seven Hills where we met up with our friends in the other group. The day shelter had just opened and guests were being served hot coffee and donated pastries and hard boiled eggs. Dr. Fitzpatrick, the officers, and reporter got on with the rest of their day. While Jon and Mike took care of some business inside the shelter, Scott, Ryan, and I interviewed the guests while they filled their insides and warmed their outsides.

After our last interview, Jon and Mike invited Scott, Ryan, and me to breakfast at the Razor’s Edge, a local Razorback fan hotspot just off the University of Arkansas campus, only a few blocks from the shelter and a couple of the camps we had just visited. At breakfast we shared beautiful conversation among like-minded souls. It was a great meal and great time with great friends. A too rare opportunity for a group of guys who share a bit of faith, passion, and purpose. If the first meal of the day is named to designate the breaking of a fast, then we sure broke it this morning. But as we sat feasting on our plates of hotcakes, biscuits and gravy, hash browns, grits, eggs, bacon, sausage, and sweet rolls, I couldn’t help but think of hard chairs, weathered faces, dirty hands, donated coffee, hard-boiled eggs, and leftover pastries. Our feast and fellowship now over, with my belly full and goodbyes given, I stepped into my nice warm car and drove North, among the hustle and bustle of unknowing commuters, toward my well-paid white-collar job, comfortable home with full pantries and closets, extra beds, and a loving family.

It has been said that we are given what we’ve been given to share with those who have not. That if we have more than we need and we know of someone lacking, but do not share, then we are guilty of stealing what was not meant for us to keep. No better and no different, than the thief who would break in and steal from me. This day I saw their faces, I shook their hands, I shared kind words, and I wished them well. Then I returned to “my” world. I returned with the knowledge of now that I saw their struggle, now that I heard their voice, now that I know they are there, I can no longer deny it – I am that thief.

“I saw what I saw and I can’t forget it,
I heard what I heard and I can’t go back,
I know what I know and I can’t deny it.
Something on the road, cut me to the soul.”

— Sara Groves

For More Information on how you can help the homeless of NW Arkansas, please visit 7 Hills Center website and watch the Cobblestone Project website for upcoming opportunities to engage in solutions.