FAYETTEVILLE -- A nonprofit group with plans to build microshelter housing has agreed to buy 4.69 undeveloped acres owned by the University of Arkansas, according to a proposal described Thursday to university trustees.
The deal, along with the possible sale of some 52 adjacent acres to an undisclosed buyer, could reshape a south Fayetteville area that until recently had an estimated 80-100 people living in impromptu encampments on university property.
The nonprofit group, Serve NWA, last year outlined plans to build 20 wooden shelters at the site, first bringing their "proposed alternative living for homeless persons" to Fayetteville's Planning Commission for approval.
On Thursday, the land deal with a purchase price of $72,571 received preliminary approval from a trustee committee. The full university board will vote today to finalize the committee's action.
"We have a homeless problem here in the city of Fayetteville that's grown over the years," Chancellor Joe Steinmetz told trustees, describing how the UA property "over the last year or so" came to house many homeless encampments.
Steinmetz said within the last "several weeks," a buyer came forward with interest in the larger acreage, part of a site roughly 1.1 miles from the main campus.
"We have not quite closed that deal with that buyer, but are very, very close," Steinmetz said. A minimum sales price of $833,000 received committee approval Thursday, with a full board vote to come today.
Last month, university police cited increasing crime -- including the beating death of a man found on the property -- and a lack of resources as reasons to break up the homeless encampments.
Police and service-agency representatives at an Aug. 9 meeting at the nearby 7 Hills Day Center told attendees about a Sept. 6 deadline to leave the property.
Four people on the property were arrested Sept. 6, according to UA police, with the university since then beginning cleanup work at the site. "No Trespassing" signs have also posted, a university spokesman has said.
Many of the people in the encampments moved into nearby shelter services offered by the Salvation Army, said Angela Belford, Northwest Arkansas Continuum of Care board chairwoman.
Belford has described stepped up efforts by service organizations such as 7 Hills, the Salvation Army and Genesis Church since the announcement of the Sept. 6 deadline.
The Salvation Army temporarily opened up an emergency shelter usually reserved for cold weather, which now averages between 40 and 50 people per night, Belford said.
But "there's probably another 40 people or so that have chosen to move to other locations," including other encampment sites, Belford said.
Serve NWA has begun working with the NWA Continuum of Care and it remains to be seen how a microshelter project might fit in with work done by other service organizations, Belford said.
"We believe homelessness is ended with permanent housing," Belford said, adding that microshelters "aren't necessarily on our strategic map."
She said organizations are waiting to hear more details from Serve NWA about their project, which she said could perhaps be an option "that would help assist people to get on their feet before they're ready for permanent housing."
In an email Thursday, Serve NWA declined to comment, citing the lack of a final decision by the university board.
"We will have a full statement posted on ServeNWA.org website pending notification of the decision by the UA Board of Trustees," an email stated.
The organization's website lists five members on its board of directors, including a UA professor, Kevin Fitzpatrick, who, with the help of volunteers, conducts a biannual count of the homeless in Benton and Washington counties.
In a short email Thursday, Fitzpatrick said the intent is for the organization to move forward with the plan to build microshelters, deferring additional comment until later.
In city documents presented in November to Fayetteville's Planning Commission, the Serve NWA project was described as a "temporary-emergency shelter project." The project's initial phase would include a 2,900-square-foot central service building and 20 wooden shelters each with about 200 square feet of floor area, according to the documents.
Triangular-shaped shelters in the "New Beginnings" homeless community would be more or less clustered around portable campfire rings, according to design drawings presented to the city.
"This is a provisional, temporary site proposal," wrote Fitzpatrick in a November letter to the city's Planning Commission. In his letter, Fitzpatrick described a plan to evaluate the shelter program over a period of five years.
"After the initial five-year period, we propose coming back to the Planning Commission with a revised strategy for moving to the next level, or asking for an extension to continue the evaluation of the program in its current form," the letter states.
Documents presented to the city include a plan for a fence to be built along the eastern side of the property.
"The New Beginnings community will have both a resident supervisor and a self-governance structure developed and adopted by residents as part of their living/residential program," Fitzpatrick's letter states, with police "given full access to the community at their discretion."
Steinmetz said Serve NWA approached the university about a year ago with interest in purchasing a portion of the land.
"They're ready to begin this project to try to find at least one solution to some of the homelessness," Steinmetz said.
He said the university bought the properties because they are across the street from the Arkansas Research and Technology Park.
The land, east of South School Avenue and both north and south of West 19th Street, was purchased with expansion in mind, particularly for businesses based in the technology park, Steinmetz said.
"It hasn't materialized in the last 15 years, nor do we think that's going to happen anytime soon, if at all," Steinmetz said.
NW News on 09/14/2018
Print Headline: Homeless microshelter plan moves forward for UA land