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Brutal cold drives more people into Fort Smith shelters

by Thomas Saccente | February 20, 2021 at 3:24 a.m.

FORT SMITH -- Some local nonprofit organizations were a little extra busy this week helping provide shelter for the homeless.

Two groups reported a significant increase in people using their services, as the area dealt with significant snowfall and brutal cold.

Chris Joannides, executive director of the Riverview Hope Campus, said the organization temporarily houses about 100 men and women at its facility on a typical night. Riverview housed as many as 135 people at times this week. Its shelter has an approved capacity of 105.

To accommodate the influx and to keep people spread out because of the covid-19 pandemic, Riverview has put some people in the hallway, Joannides said.

More people means the campus served more meals. There's also additional use of amenities, such as showers and laundry services, Joannides said.

Donations that the facility received this week, including five pallets of fresh fruit and a variety of goods from Starbucks, helped ensure that the campus would not come up short in terms of food.

Starbucks had to close for three days.

"So they called us and said, 'Hey, we've got all these pastries and we've got all these yogurts and we have all these sandwiches, and we don't want to throw them away,'" Joannides said.

He said he picked up about 100 sandwiches and about 200 pastries from Starbucks.

Joannides said the Riverview Hope Campus also functioned as a warming shelter this week. He projected that activity at the campus will return to normal by the end of next week.

Riverview conducted a count in January that found more than 200 people in the Fort Smith area are homeless, Joannides said.

Acie Turner, director of the Salvation Army of Fort Smith homeless shelter, relayed a similar experience. His organization provides emergency shelter for single women and women with children. The shelter has 32 beds.

Turner said many people who would normally stay outside sought shelter because of the life-threatening cold this week. He estimated that about twice as many people have used the shelter this week compared with a typical week. However, there was never a point when the number of guests exceeded capacity.

The organization is requiring everybody to wear masks, including the staff, he said.

"The big precaution that we're taking is that we are making sure that we provide snacks and hot chocolate and coffee for people because that will keep their body heat up," Turner said. "That provides fuel for their body, so that's the basic thing we're doing."

The Salvation Army also has been open during the day as a warming center, Turner said. Cold weather leads more people to take evening meals at the organization every night as well.

"For the most part, a lot of the people that come through have really down immune systems," Turner said. "Their emotional state is not good. I mean, being homeless has its own challenges, and a lot of them involve just personal safety. A lot of them regularly you'd see get beat up and different things like that, so those are some challenges, and then this cold just really zaps their immune system."

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