FORT SMITH — Residents of the Arkansas River Valley who want to transform their lives and become self-sufficient have a new resource in Fort Smith.
Thanks to support from the three Catholic churches and the Catholic hospital in Fort Smith, the Riverview Hope Campus opened Sept. 29. It will provide comprehensive services to low-income individuals and families.
The center is located at 301 S. E Street, within walking distance from the Arkansas River and the downtown railroad tracks, where many of the 80-100 homeless people in Fort Smith set up camp at night.
Chris Joannides, director of the Hope Campus, said the comprehensive services they provide are not just for the homeless.
“We’re here for the lost and forgotten,” he said. “Fort Smith has a poverty rate of 28 percent while the national average is just 14 percent. A good portion of our clientele will just come for day services. We have free laundry facilities, and we serve three meals a day. The Adult Ed Center is offering onsite classes for ESL, GED, domestic violence, parenting, resume building and budgeting. We will soon have free internet service in our library. All these services are available to visitors as well as homeless residents.”
The Adult Education Center isn’t the only regional partner with an onsite presence on the Hope Campus. St. Anne Society, a ministry of all Fort Smith’s Catholic churches, moved into its permanent location on campus Oct. 3. The society will be open every Tuesday and Wednesday from 1-3 p.m., offering help with rent and utilities to needy individuals. The Pantry of St. Veronica, stocked with personal hygiene and cleaning supplies, has also moved to the Hope Campus.
Organizers said they believe homelessness can be drastically reduced through offering comprehensive services in one place. They said the campus model has an 80 percent to 95 percent success rate of getting people out of homelessness.
Deacon Greg Pair of Immaculate Conception Church and board chairman, said the community response on its opening day was overwhelming.
“We just got done,” he said at 3 p.m. Oct. 3, “and we’re out of money. We have a certain amount we’re able to give each month, and it’s sad, because even a $1 million isn’t enough. The clients couldn’t get in the door, and the hallway was filled with people wanting to see us. All the shelves in St. Veronica’s pantry are empty.”
Looking around the room where other regional partners will set up shop, he added, “We’re all onsite so people don’t have to drive all over town to get help.”
Joannides said homeless services were feeling stretched as well.
“We have 85 beds in our dormitory, and they’re all full,” he said. “We will be able to serve more people when we get 30 more beds. Our classroom is ready, but we don’t have any laptops yet. We have lots of needs, but the community has been very responsive to our social media blitzes. We just got 85 pillow donations, and now we will be putting out a call for canned goods and dry goods for our feeding program.”
Mercy Hospital Fort Smith opened up a clinic on campus last month, and pointing to a small room filled with dental equipment, Joannides said five local dentists have volunteered to offer dental services. Another room is set up with a barber’s chair, and a barber has volunteered to give haircuts.
TRAC Staffing, a local employment agency, also has a presence on campus.
“We expect that most of our residents will be busy during the day taking classes, job hunting or working,” Joannides said.
Pair, who has worked with the homeless in Fort Smith for a number of years, has presided over two church services so far in the campus chapel and hopes other local clergy will get involved.
To learn how to help, visit riverviewhopecampus.org. Monetary and in-kind donations for St. Anne’s Society and the Pantry of St. Veronica can be dropped off at the Immaculate Conception Church office or donated through the weekly collections of Fort Smith Catholic churches.
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