After two years of homelessness, George Morrison in December had the money to pay deposits and part of the rent at a Fayetteville apartment, if he could find one to accept him. He died early this month from a possible homicide in the woods. He still had no apartment.
His story is a reminder that money, whether from assistance programs or personal savings, isn’t always enough to end a person’s homelessness. Service providers and the homeless population have long said background checks, personal circumstances and other obstacles can still leave an apartment or rental house out of reach.
Morrison’s death also shows how urgent the issue can be, said Glenn Miller, local mission coordinator at Fayetteville’s Genesis Church, which works to help dozens of people keep or find housing. Morrison, 51, was among them for a few months until, Miller said, he started getting rejected in his apartment applications.
“You got all these things working against you,” such as bad or no credit, criminal histories or fixed incomes, Miller said. “It’s hard to get a second chance.”
Arkansas allows residents to expunge some types of criminal convictions, sealing them from public view. They have to meet several conditions, including:
All sentences have been served and court costs and fines paid.
The offense wasn’t a federal offense, a Class Y felony, a non-drug-related Class A or B felony, or a felony sex or violent offense.
A petition to seal has been filed in court, which costs $50. Several types of offenses require a certain waiting period before petitioning for expungement.
Source: Arkansas Crime Information Center
The Northwest Arkansas Continuum of Care, an umbrella group striving to connect homeless assistance and service groups with anyone near or experiencing homelessness, knows of more than 500 people who were homeless as of earlier this month, said Cari Bogulski, board secretary.
No one has tallied how many are rejected by potential housing, but the problem’s existence is common knowledge among landlords, public housing officials and advocates such as Miller. He said around half of the families coming to the church for help get rejected at least once.
Laura Higgins at the Fayetteville Housing Authority oversees Section 8 housing choice vouchers, a federal program covering part of rent for low-income households. A voucher is only good for around two or three months after it’s issued, and the waiting list to receive a voucher from the housing authority is almost two years long.
Higgins said about a quarter of cases won’t get into a place accepting the voucher within the time limit. Many of those aren’t rejected and might have moved or found another way into housing, she said. But landlords also do their credit and background screenings for voucher-holders the same as with any other tenants, she and other area housing authority officials said.
Dozens of complexes take vouchers.
Morrison didn’t have a voucher, but in December he started working with the similar Hearth program run by Fayetteville. It has used federal grants to cover part or all of rent for almost 200 adults and children, said Yolanda Fields, community resources director.
Participants generally get a month to find an apartment in Fayetteville, but she extended that to two months for Morrison because he was having trouble finding one.
Fields and Miller said they didn’t know for sure why he had trouble; both said he stopped contacting them. But before that happened, Miller said Morrison — who was remembered by acquaintances as warm and generous — had become depressed after at least one rejection. Morrison had several old misdemeanor convictions, and Miller said he had unmet mental health needs as well.
The University of Arkansas Police Department is investigating the death as a homicide; Morrison was found dead on undeveloped university land in south Fayetteville.
Miller and others said they don’t blame property managers for wanting to be sure tenants can cover rent and will take care of their units, or for not taking vouchers. Vouchers require extra paperwork with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Casey Kleinhenz, property manager for the nonprofit Community Development Corporation of Bentonville and Bella Vista, said a criminal record isn’t an automatic disqualifier there but can hurt a potential tenant’s chances.
The concern with such a record usually isn’t that a person will re-offend, he added. Instead it’s that the fines from a conviction are sometimes high enough that rent becomes too expensive, even in units that cost as little as around $300 or $400 a month for low-income families. HUD pegs fair-market rent for a one-bedroom apartment at about $560.
“You’ll see it often enough that it’s a pattern,” he said. “It really stinks.”
Volunteers with Legal Aid of Arkansas and other groups held an expungement clinic Friday afternoon at Fayetteville’s Good Shepherd Lutheran Church for dozens of people hoping to clear their criminal records. Arkansas allows people who’ve served their sentences and paid their fines to ask a judge to seal some misdemeanor and nonviolent felony convictions from public view.
Sherman Terry, who works part time at Genesis, drove several people to the clinic and participated in it, too. He said a felony drug charge from years ago has led Fayetteville apartments to deny him outright before he even fills out an application.
He lives for now in an apartment provided by the mental health provider Ozark Guidance for about $250 a month while receiving case management and therapy services. He hopes to someday find housing on his own when he’s ready.
Housing advocates in the area have said organizations like 7 Hills Homeless Center or programs like Hearth can be a source of comfort for landlords. Vouchers mean at least part of rent is guaranteed, for instance, while service providers can be on hand to help with any issues that arise for clients.
John Cloyed manages around 120 units in Fayetteville and is a Continuum of Care board member. He accepts vouchers and works with 7 Hills, Genesis Church and others to house their clients if he has room. Other homeless or couchsurfing folks have come to him on their own as well.
Cloyed said he doesn’t run credit checks and does only a limited local criminal background check. Sometimes previously homeless tenants don’t work out for various reasons, but he said, for the most part they’re fine, even some of his best.
“They’re excited for the chance, they’re excited for a place to call their own,” he said.
Continuum of Care members hope more landlords take the same leap. The Center for Collaborative Care in Springdale, for example, has started putting together donations for a possible community-wide fund that could help with deposits and housing upkeep or cover any damage a client might cause, though Continuum leaders say that problem is rare.
7 Hills CEO Jessica Andrews earlier this month suggested seeing such a fund as an incentive rather than insurance, something to make it easier and simpler for property managers to join the push against homelessness.
Fields and Cloyed emphasized the importance of talking with property owners, sharing information about local and federal programs and building relationships over time.
“I think really it’s a lot about education and relationships and community building, and understanding we’re all trying to make this a better place to live. I think we’re getting there,” Fields said.
Kleinhenz and other experts also came back to what they say is the most basic solution to housing issues: building more housing. More empty apartments could nudge landlords to accept the steady flow of voucher-holders, Cloyed said. Continuum board chairwoman Angela Belford in March noted the group’s counterpart in Tulsa manages its own low-cost housing, something that might work here.
More than 96 percent of apartments in Northwest Arkansas were full in the second half of last year, according to the University of Arkansas Center for Business Research.
“We can no longer just do nothing or hope it’s going to be better. We have got to be intentional as a community,” said Sister Lisa Atkins, a member of the Sisters of Mercy and nurse practitioner at Mercy Northwest Arkansas. She helps lead a meal and outreach program at Benton County motels frequented by homeless people.
The program recently helped place 10 families in apartments with one-time grants, but even if it could help more families, Atkins said she had no leads on places to put them.
“There’s people we think are ready for affordable housing, but there is none,” she said.
Dan Holtmeyer can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @NWADanH.
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