Guest Column with Sarah Wilson: August 2022
Updated: Aug 17, 2022
HOMELESS IN ARKANSAS
How technology helps take care of those who're down on their luck
Conway Ministry Center
FOR THE PAST five years I've worked for a nonprofit in Conway. We serve families in crisis, many of them being unsheltered and kind of living on the fringes. What I find in my work is that we have a certain number of people who are chronically homeless, but then we have a larger number who’ve had something traumatic happen, whether it's the loss of a job, or a car breaks down, or they need an operation, and they go from living in a home to not having one. It's very hard to watch.
Our facility, which we moved into last year, is a huge building. Our administration offices are in the front, and in the back we have a food pantry. We also have a furniture warehouse and a supply of clothing—a lot is happening in this one location. I usually start my day by greeting a lot of our homeless. They come out of their tents and their campsites and we offer real tangible supplies, such as water and food.
Just yesterday I fed 38 people; they received water, food packs, a warm meal. It varies. We have a core group that numbers about 20 to 25 people. But it increases in the summer months, when we see a lot more children. Normally they would be in school, but summertime is harder on families because there's a lack of childcare. So we see unemployment rise, along with the number of hungry little faces.
Another time that we see an influx of families is usually right after Christmas. In America, we try to make sure our kids have a good Christmas, but unfortunately that sets a lot of our families back. Also, they're working jobs that don’t pay them through the holidays, or maybe they’re given a shortage of work hours. Most employers require fulltime employment before workers qualify for health insurance, so companies often try to keep these seasonal employees at 24, 25 hours a week, which at minimum wage isn't enough to support a family, even with two working adults in the house. It just snowballs, until usually the end of January.
In the winter, the city of Conway gives us a 12-week permit to run a warming station, the purpose of which is to save lives in the coldest months of the year. During that period, we disassemble our facility a little bit and build bunk beds to house up to 49 people at any given time.
Last winter we had a total of 125 individuals come and stay, and there was the ice storm in the middle of it. It was a wild, wild time. This period is always hard for us, but it’s also kind of a blessing. People who are homeless are often nomadic. If their camps get destroyed or if property owners force them to move on, it’s difficult for us to provide services. But during this time when we have the warming station, it allows me to keep tabs on them better. Here they are every day, how can we offer opportunities to improve their lives while they’re staying still? We can sometimes see radical transformations happen just because a person had a safe place to stay for a while.
Last year we had a young veteran staying with us. He was in his 30s and was suffering from PTSD. While he was at the warming station, I began a conversation with him: What does he want to do, what does his future look like in the next 12 weeks? I always want to know what they want, because I'm not going to push my agenda on them. If they want a house, I want to work on that. But if a client has other opportunities, we want to consider those.
This young veteran told me he felt like he would qualify for a disability, so we started the paperwork—there’s a lot of paperwork. And just this week he found out he’d been awarded disability on the basis of the paperwork we submitted. He’s literally going from being homeless on the street, camp survival, to having a roof over his head. He got several months of back pay, so he put a bunch of that toward rent for a year. It's been amazing to watch. Now he can prepare a meal, take a shower, and do other things that so many of us take for granted.
A very important part of my job is trying my best to make sure people hold on to their dignity. There's something very humbling about having to explain to a case worker all the things they lack—money, home, car, food, clean clothes. If they lose their dignity, it's almost like they’ve lost the will to keep pushing forward. My role is to give them options and choices, and then help equip them to succeed in the choices they’ve made. Maintaining their dignity gives them the inner strength to keep going, to make those tough decisions instead of just giving up and falling apart, which I see happen all too often.
WHEN I STARTED in this field of work, we had pretty basic tracking systems. I remember working at a food pantry and trying to keep up with all the regulars by literally jotting notes on index cards. It was impossible to keep track. Our clients come, they go, and it’s hard to know what’s happening with them. It’s hard to know the scope of the issues they’re dealing with. It’s hard to track how much food and supplies we’re taking in and giving out. There’s a lot of information to manage.
My own tech skills are pretty limited. On my computer, I keep spreadsheets and look at trends. I document every single resource that goes out, whether it's a food pack or donated clothing or money for somebody’s rent or utility bills. We also connect to a couple of databases that can help us see not just what our agency has done for families, but also what other agencies in the area are doing. I know a lot of people think we keep these records just to make sure nobody’s double dipping, but that’s not it. The more we know what’s really happening out there, the more we can tailor our support to our clients’ unique circumstances.
Bottom line, we’re a seven-person office struggling to get our arms and heads around a massive amount of data. Which is why I’m so happy that, of our seven, two are Millennials—a young woman and a young man—who have essentially reinvented the way we document things. But more than that, they’re employing technology to help us all do our work better.
Denay is the one who runs our social media. She produces all of the graphics and the announcements, and she publishes some of our case stories on Facebook and Instagram. That may sound pretty basic these days, but it’s made a huge difference in communicating what we do. It spurs people to visit our website and see all the ways we’re helping people in crisis, and of course it helps us attract donors. Then we have Graydon, whose specialty is tracking statistics and outcomes for us. He can divide all our clients into subgroups, so we can say, “This family falls into that category, but this family is in this other category.” People in different categories require different resources.
We’re supported by various area churches, but also by probably a couple of thousand individuals who trust us to be good managers of the funds they’ve donated. We want to make sure there are checks and balances in place, and now, thanks to technology, we can show them exactly how their resources are making a difference.
But it’s not just a matter of Excel spreadsheets. Technology also gives us the more subtle ability to match individual donors with the specific needs they’re interested in helping with. For example, there was this young couple in the community who had an eight-month-old boy at a local hospital, and he had a terminal diagnosis. When we found out about this family, we reached out and started talking with the parents about how we could help them financially.
At the same time, we have donors who don’t necessarily want to send a general monthly allotment; they prefer that we come to them when we have “something special,” as they often put it. In the case of the parents with the terminally ill baby, I was able to inform the perfect donor for that particular kind of case. I told this donor what the need was and what we were doing—talking with the mortgage company, talking with the utility companies, talking with the employers. In the end, that donor’s contribution went straight to that family in need, and we provided the donor with all the necessary records for taxes and so on. We managed the details, and the person with the soft heart trusted us to do it. Technology paved the way.
In short, we’re thankful for all the ways that technology helps us connect resources to those who need it most.