New Beginnings project in Fayetteville weeks away from providing housing for most vulnerable residents

New Beginnings project in Fayetteville weeks away from providing housing for most vulnerable residents


FAYETTEVILLE — Some residents who have spent years living outdoors or faced challenges in housing stability are just weeks from moving into a home.

The New Beginnings project has been a grind, but the vision hasn’t changed, its co-founder says.

Residents experiencing chronic homelessness should be able to move into 20 prefabricated homes about 140 square feet in size in the next six to eight weeks. The New Beginnings temporary housing community lies in a wooded area south of 19th Street and South School Avenue, near the 7 Hills Homeless Center.

The project will serve adults. Each unit is hooked up to electricity with plug-ins for electronic devices such as cellphones. The units also are equipped with air conditioning and heating, windows residents can open and insulation for extreme temperatures. A bed can fit in each unit with shelving and lights built in.

A 2,800-square-foot service building sits north of the units to provide residents basic needs. There are three bathrooms and showers, a community kitchen, washer and dryer and office space for staff and partner organizations.

Social workers will help each person as he strives for permanent housing. A staff person will remain on site at all times for safety and security.

Residents will come up with the code of conduct for the community. Each one will have a key to get into the site, with fencing intended to prevent unauthorized people from entering.

Solomon Burchfield, program director of the New Beginnings nonprofit group behind the project, said the idea is to give control back to people who have spent years living outdoors. People can stay as long as they need to, although the units are not intended as permanent housing, he said.

“The folks we’re trying to prioritize are people who have been in need of housing for many years,” Burchfield said. “So I don’t expect it’s going to be a quick exit out. They may be facing some complex barriers, and it may take some time.”

There were 157 people homeless in Washington, Benton, Madison and Carroll counties according to the Northwest Arkansas Continuum of Care’s point-in-time count held Jan. 28. However, unsheltered people were not counted because of covid-19 restrictions, according to the organization’s website.

There were 369 unsheltered and temporarily sheltered people counted in the four counties in January 2020. In January 2019, it was 529.

Burchfield has been telling prospective residents about the community, although the nonprofit group is still working on who will live there. Staff will enroll longtime unsheltered residents in coordination with other organizations, such as 7 Hills, Salvation Army and the regional Continuum of Care, he said.

“I think the part people love the most is the respect,” he said. “I’m not bringing people into my program. I’m not trying to control them. I’m trying to provide an environment that’s safe and supportive, where people can be in charge and share control. That’s what people get excited about.”

The project comes on the heels of a separate effort to improve conditions for people living outdoors. A city-sanctioned encampment called Safe Camp opened last year south of Seven Hills Court and Huntsville Road as a way to keep vulnerable residents protected from covid-19 exposure. Money came from the federal government through the city’s Community Resources Division. Sanitizing stations, running water, showers and meals were made available to residents registered at the site. The camp also employed a self-governance model. Burchfield served a leading role in the project as well.

The road to New Beginnings has been bumpy at times. The project broke ground in April 2019, but encountered development hurdles, changes in design and rising costs. Figuring out the route for a sewer line proved especially difficult.

The nonprofit group sought pro bono work for design and construction where it could. The city waived thousands of dollars in fees. Jane Hunt, daughter of J.B. and Johnelle Hunt, donated $1 million in May to wrap construction and help with operating costs.

The donation made it possible for New Beginnings to get off the ground, but by no means is the project set for life, said Kevin Fitzpatrick, board member and co-founder. Individual donations so far have kept the project going, and now the group is in a position to approach foundations and organizations to invest in the community’s future, he said.

The final cost likely will come in at just under $1 million, Fitzpatrick said. A little bit of outdoor site work and touchups to the service building are left. The annual operations cost is about $400,000. The group plans to hire about six people as staff.

Fitzpatrick got the idea for the project in 2015. A professor at the University of Arkansas, he approached then-Chancellor G. David Gearhart about the group, then known as ServeNWA, acquiring acreage the university system owned south of 19th Street for temporary shelters.

Gearhart resigned that year and the situation at 19th Street became unsafe for unsheltered people with frequent instances of violence and unsanitary conditions, Fitzpatrick said.

The group bought 5 acres out of about 50 the university owned in September 2018 for $72,571. Around the same time, university police cleared camps there. Many unsheltered people found homes through 7 Hills, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and other organizations. The Salvation Army opened its shelter for longer hours.

Then necessities started to fall into place, Fitzpatrick said. The group got a use permit from the city’s Planning Commission, designs were finalized and shelter company Pallet in Seattle made the units for about $7,000 apiece, he said.

“For many clients, this is their only hope,” he said. “We designed it that way with the anticipation that there are some people who are looking to us as the step out for them, because they weren’t able to find it anywhere else.”

Donald Whitehead, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, said listening to participants should be the essential element of any city’s program to address homelessness. The way a program starts may not be what it becomes as it progresses, he said.

“Partnering with people with lived experience is the key to building and maintaining successful programs,” Whitehead said. “The absolute key to addressing those individuals that are chronically homeless is to maintain support services, with small caseloads and additional support such as substance abuse, mental health and peer support in place.”

The next step for New Beginnings is a certificate of occupancy from the city. Getting the certificate is the final step in the development review process.

City inspectors will review consistency of construction with design, compliance of lighting with the city’s regulations, the fit and finish of buildings, fire and safety compliance, stormwater measures, wheelchair access and other details, said Jonathan Curth, development services director with the city.

The city can issue a temporary certificate with a list of items to complete, enabling the site to open to residents, Curth said. The site still needs pole lights installed, for instance.

Solomon Burchfield, director of New Beginnings, describes Tuesday, June 29, 2021, the interior of a model cabin at New Beginnings located south of 19th Street and South School Avenue in Fayetteville. The plans for New Beginnings involve 20 prefabricated houses with about 140 square feet of living space, with a 2,800-square-foot community building to provide clients basic needs. Check out nwaonline.com/210704Daily/ and nwadg.com/photos for a photo gallery.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/David Gottschalk)

Construction continues Tuesday, June 29, 2021, on new cabins at New Beginnings located south of 19th Street and South School Avenue in Fayetteville. The plans for New Beginnings involve 20 prefabricated houses with about 140 square feet of living space, with a 2,800-square-foot community building to provide clients basic needs. Check out nwaonline.com/210704Daily/ and nwadg.com/photos for a photo gallery.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/David Gottschalk)

Construction continues Tuesday, June 29, 2021, on new cabins at New Beginnings located south of 19th Street and South School Avenue in Fayetteville. The plans for New Beginnings involve 20 prefabricated houses with about 140 square feet of living space, with a 2,800-square-foot community building to provide clients basic needs. Check out nwaonline.com/210704Daily/ and nwadg.com/photos for a photo gallery.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/David Gottschalk)

Construction continues Tuesday, June 29, 2021, on the new community building at New Beginnings located south of 19th Street and South School Avenue in Fayetteville. The plans for New Beginnings involve 20 prefabricated houses with about 140 square feet of living space, with a 2,800-square-foot community building to provide clients basic needs. Check out nwaonline.com/210704Daily/ and nwadg.com/photos for a photo gallery.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/David Gottschalk)

Construction continues Tuesday, June 29, 2021, on the new community building at New Beginnings located south of 19th Street and South School Avenue in Fayetteville. The plans for New Beginnings involve 20 prefabricated houses with about 140 square feet of living space, with a 2,800-square-foot community building to provide clients basic needs. Check out nwaonline.com/210704Daily/ and nwadg.com/photos for a photo gallery.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/David Gottschalk)

One of the bathroom and shower areas Tuesday, June 29, 2021, inside the new community building at New Beginnings located south of 19th Street and South School Avenue in Fayetteville. The plans for New Beginnings involve 20 prefabricated houses with about 140 square feet of living space, with a 2,800-square-foot community building to provide clients basic needs. Check out nwaonline.com/210704Daily/ and nwadg.com/photos for a photo gallery.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/David Gottschalk)

One of the bathroom and shower areas Tuesday, June 29, 2021, inside the new community building at New Beginnings located south of 19th Street and South School Avenue in Fayetteville. The plans for New Beginnings involve 20 prefabricated houses with about 140 square feet of living space, with a 2,800-square-foot community building to provide clients basic needs. Check out nwaonline.com/210704Daily/ and nwadg.com/photos for a photo gallery.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/David Gottschalk)

Construction continues Tuesday, June 29, 2021, on new cabins at New Beginnings located south of 19th Street and South School Avenue in Fayetteville. The plans for New Beginnings involve 20 prefabricated houses with about 140 square feet of living space, with a 2,800-square-foot community building to provide clients basic needs. Check out nwaonline.com/210704Daily/ and nwadg.com/photos for a photo gallery.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/David Gottschalk)

Construction continues Tuesday, June 29, 2021, on new cabins at New Beginnings located south of 19th Street and South School Avenue in Fayetteville. The plans for New Beginnings involve 20 prefabricated houses with about 140 square feet of living space, with a 2,800-square-foot community building to provide clients basic needs. Check out nwaonline.com/210704Daily/ and nwadg.com/photos for a photo gallery.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/David Gottschalk)

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Listen to Kevin Fitzpatrick, New Beginnings board member, and Solomon Burchfield, program director, discuss the project at: nwaonline.com/23knowthenews/



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