During COVID-19, we’ve become accustomed to staying home more than usual — working from the kitchen table, kids engaged in online learning and viewing virtual events from the comfort of our couch. In this season, “home” has become more important than ever. But hundreds in central Arkansas have nowhere to spend their days and nights, let alone call home.
In fact, one recent count over a 24-hour period found 553 people sleeping outside in the Little Rock area. Homelessness compounded with COVID-19 presents unique challenges, challenges that local nonprofit The Van has adjusted to address as it continues to serve unsheltered individuals.
The Van, as its name implies, brings resources to those living on the streets rather than having them come to shelters or resource centers.
“Our mission is to be a mobile resource to people who are unsheltered and experiencing homelessness in and around central Arkansas,” says Aaron Reddin, president and founder of the organization. “Prior to COVID-19 we were out just about every single night of the week in some part of the metro.”
Volunteers visit all sections of the Little Rock metro and build relationships with people who are sleeping on the streets, under bridges, in tents and anywhere without a real roof over their head. Reddin says their method for helping those in need is relational rather than programmatic. They work to build trust by simply providing basic needs, then build on that relationship — sometimes over the course of several years — and explore opportunities to help those they connect with to overcome homelessness.
While these are still their goals during the pandemic, it’s become more difficult to build relationships when implementing social distancing protocols and having to cover smiles with masks. But safety comes first.
Reddin says that at the start of the pandemic, there were so many unknowns that they had to take a step back in order to make sure they were protecting everyone.
“Early on we took a very cautious approach of filling orders as opposed to bringing supplies out to people, so that reduced the number of times that any number of people were touching any number of objects,” Reddin says. “As we got into that, we realized it was unsustainable for our team. It was just an overload of work. So we put plexiglass in the van to make a little divider, and as masks became more abundant and in supply we began being able to use those and share those as well.”
Now, their focus is keeping people still. By keeping still and staying in their “group” or camp, the unsheltered people The Van serves are less likely to contract or spread COVID-19.
“We’ve really started focusing on [delivering] food and water and telling people, ‘Look, if you’ll just be still and let us know how we can help and what we can bring to you, then you don’t have to get out and move about town,’” Reddin says. “If there was an outbreak … it would be disastrous.”
Manley Dillon has been volunteering with The Van for about five years. He says he’s typically the “Friday night driver” and goes out with his girlfriend each week to deliver supplies.
“There used to be a lot of handshakes and fist bumps … now I’m real big on hand sanitizer,” Dillon says. “COVID-19 has changed the world, but it’s made it harder for the people on the street.”
Over the last half a decade of serving, Dillon’s relationships with everyone he meets have only grown. He says it’s the relationships that keep him coming back week after week.
“I love the people out there and I love the Lord. They’re just like everybody else,” Dillon says. “Last night a woman I’ve known since I started this — she’s battling a drug addiction … I know she wanted to go back to her camp, but that’s where the drugs and everything are. I can just see the battle going on inside of her. It breaks your heart to see the struggle … I can’t describe it, but if you go out there you see other human beings suffering for no reason. Everybody should have somebody to call, somebody to count on.”
And for many of the individuals The Van serves, they have someone to call and count on for life. Eddie Fought was homeless for more than 20 years, many of which he spent living under a bridge in Riverdale.
“I had good days and bad, but I had more bad days than good,” Fought says about his time living on the streets. “Winters were cold, summertimes were 100-plus degrees. It was rough, but I toughed it out.”
It was during that time he met Reddin.
“Eddie lived under there for a long, long time and we hit it off and became buddies early on in the days of The Van,” Reddin says. “It took five years of earning his trust to finally get to the point to encourage him to get his disability.”
It was only through a true friendship that Reddin was able to help Fought get off the streets. Each refers to the other verbatim as “one of my best friends in the world.” In February 2021, Fought will celebrate eight years living in his duplex. He’s proud of how far he’s come and is incredibly thankful to Reddin and The Van for the work they’ve done and continue to do in his life.
“If someone offered me a million dollars to go back to the streets, I’m not going anywhere,” Fought says. “I know all my neighbors and they all help me out when they can. I can’t complain.”
He recalls one Thanksgiving where several neighbors brought him a dinner plate and how grateful he was to have so much that he could share.
“My fridge was plumb full of food,” Fought says. “I gave it to some homeless people.”
His and Reddin’s friendship didn’t end when he moved into his duplex. Now, Reddin helps him pay bills, get groceries and run any other errands he may need help with. As for Fought, he hasn’t minded having to quarantine during COVID-19.
As he says, “I’m a homebody, I guess.”
Despite The Van having to work around obstacles they couldn’t have even imagined a year ago, they are still growing their work and reach. Relationships like the one Reddin has with Fought continue to blossom and, after renting for many years, they recently purchased a warehouse. That warehouse sits on 5 acres of land they have, aptly named Back 5 Fields.
At Back 5 Fields, they raise chickens to harvest eggs, keep beehives and collect honey and grow small crops. They’ve been doing this for about seven years, but the new property gives them a chance to expand this aspect of the organization.
“We wanted to create an opportunity to provide fresh foods for people who are unsheltered who might be able to cook over a fire,” Reddin says. “We also wanted to produce food in the local food market that could help provide permanent jobs and day labor opportunities for the same people we serve through The Van.”
In addition to providing food for the homeless individuals they serve, they’re currently producing enough eggs to be able to sell to Raduno Brick Oven & Barroom and Lost 40 Brewing to incorporate in their brunch menus. Those sales help them to employ one part-time worker who lives on-site.
Going forward, Reddin hopes to increase honey production and ramp up their garden crops, which they missed out on this year due to moving locations and the chaos of COVID-19 in the early spring.
“We really see in 2021 an opportunity for us to increase production to the point of maybe making up for the loss of some fundraisers that we’ve been unable to hold because of COVID, because people are still going to eat, and they still love local foods and restaurants still love locally grown foods,” Reddin says. “This next year we are preparing our soil and we are getting ready to grow a lot of food that will go to the people who are served by The Van and directly to restaurants. And we might even work on employing some folks who are homeless to work farmers markets.”
The dual purpose of Back 5 Fields is what makes it so important to the mission of The Van: It’s feeding those in need as well as providing employment opportunities.
“People are not defeating homelessness without an income,” Reddin says. “The more we can create unorthodox opportunities for people in these unorthodox situations, the more we can make homelessness brief and rare in Arkansas.”
As Reddin and his team of volunteers continue to serve the unsheltered community in central Arkansas, there are many ways the community can come behind them to help.
Historically, the organization has opened an emergency shelter on either side of the river during especially cold and wet weather. But Reddin’s biggest concern this winter is the inability to open those shelters and pack people in due to COVID-19. So, he’s working overtime to make sure they have enough winter gear to distribute.
“Probably still the most helpful thing people can do is help supply us with warm gear,” Reddin says. “Coats, blankets, mens shoes and boots, socks — we’re going to need those things desperately … I’ve got $10k worth of blankets on order right now and I’m probably going to need to order more at some point if local drives don’t come through.”
He says he would love to see neighborhoods, churches and other groups in the community come together to gather supplies or host donation drives. The Van partners with a number of businesses around central Arkansas as drop-off spots, which are listed on their website.
Of course, financial donations are always welcome, and that money keeps their vehicles fueled and on the streets so they can reach those who need their help.
As a volunteer, Dillon has seen the impact The Van has and believes that everyone can play a part.
“In this climate and just looking at the news and what’s going on and everybody divided, we can all get together and gripe, or we can all get together and actually start helping people,” Dillon says. “Anybody can change a person’s life … If the opportunity is there, just take it. There are people out there who need help.”
Unsheltered / Homeless
The Van focuses its outreach on a specific niche of the homeless population: those who are unsheltered. According to Reddin, many homeless individuals still spend each night with a roof over their head, whether that be on a friend’s couch or in a shelter bed.
“Our focus is people who are sleeping outside, and that’s what we consider unsheltered,” Reddin says, “people who are sleeping in a car, sleeping in an alleyway, sleeping in a tent in the woods.”
Shelter beds are limited and not everyone wants to or is able to spend their nights in a shelter. Many shelters charge a small fee and others have religious impositions or other rules. According to Reddin, as of the last official statewide count in January 2019, if every homeless individual in the state went to a shelter despite fees or regulations, there would still be a 1,000-bed shortage.
“So that’s our focus,” Reddin says. “We want to focus on these people. How do we make sure they weather the storm? How do we make sure they make it through wintertime? How do we come alongside them?”
Learn how you can help at itsthevan.org.