Hot Springs has a housing crisis that was illuminated by the COVID-19 pandemic, something that Kim Carter, executive director of Cooperative Christian Ministries & Clinic, is trying to help solve.
One of the groups of people who have been struggling since the pandemic began has been the ALICE population, Carter said.
“ALICE is Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed,” she said. “It’s not a great term, but we call them the working poor. They don’t make enough money to live on. We hear the term paycheck to paycheck, and these people, the people that fall in ALICE, they’re kind of always falling a little bit behind.”
Carter said this population had “completely got their feet kicked out from underneath them” due to the pandemic, and it affected more than just renters.
“We still had landlords who had to pay mortgages on their properties, so we became a bridge between those people who were struggling and the people who provided the services,” she said.
“So we worked with landlords; we worked with utility companies. We became so much more aware of, and I think the media began to become more aware of, people in that situation.”
The housing crisis is not anything new, Carter said, but it has been an ongoing issue for many years.
“The housing crisis has been around for a while,” she said. “Probably goes back all the way back to 2008 where we saw builders who go under. We saw less houses. We saw that the increase in pricing, and then COVID was just — it was more than the icing on the cake. It was this flood that happened.”
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According to the United Way’s United for ALICE website, Arkansas has the eighth-highest percentage of households below the ALICE threshold with 46%, tying with Florida. Louisiana and Mississippi are the top two states with 51% and 50%, respectively.
One thing that CCMC does to try to help families in this situation in Garland County is offer a “Bridges Out of Poverty” workshop, which strives to help individuals to move from poverty to self-sufficiency. Carter said the organization is revamping the workshop to better aid those in the classes.
“We’ve been developing some new training, and we’ve been looking at poverty on this continuum,” she said. “There are some standout markers on that continuum, and one of them is chronic homelessness. Another one is going to be persons living in that ALICE population. Those are clearly defined income guidelines. We have the federal poverty levels that are adjusted minorly each year, and those are qualifiers for services for certain types of things like that.”
Carter said she is happy to see West Central Arkansas Planning & Development District preparing to do a housing study in Hot Springs.
“That’s one of those top down where we have people who come in and take objective … measurements,” she said. “They look at, they make plans: ‘What do we have? What can we do?’ We are excited to see the work that is going to come out of that study, and Andrew Coker with West Central Planning & Development, he’s been crucial in getting some of that to the board.”
People tend to be “homogeneous in our gathering,” Carter said, and “gather with people who look like us, live like us, worship like us, have similar values. That’s typical human behavior, but when we have big problems to solve, we’ve all got to step outside our comfort zones.”
She said people need “to strike up conversations and relationships, to go into areas where people are being served, where you know work is being done, where you’re likely to find individuals who are different than you. I think that’s one of the key things, and in Hot Springs, we have so many opportunities to do that.”
Carter suggested volunteering at schools or aiding area nonprofit organizations as ways to help those suffering due to the housing crisis.
One significant issue facing families in the ALICE population is child care, she said.
“The biggest barrier to getting people employed is child care,” she said. “We have a lack of open spaces for child care in Hot Springs. It’s another thing that there’s a shortage of. Whether people can afford it or not, there’s just not a lot of openings. And then when you add the price on to it, so we’re lucky to have Head Starts and Early Head Starts.
“We’re lucky to have some programs, but those programs fill up quickly.”
There are also those who struggle with “crisis poverty,” Carter said, which stems from unforeseen circumstances. She noted she recently was contacted by someone who is self-employed and had a medical issue that kept them from working.
“They can’t work right now because of critical health issues,” she said. “And this person is facing eviction because they can’t pay their rent. … There are these situations where — whether people ended up in them by some crazy circumstance, like a medical event, or they made some bad choices that led them to that and we also know those people, or it’s usually a combination of two things — we see people in dire circumstances every day.”
She said people often refer to having to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” but often the people struggling with poverty “don’t have boots; they’re in flip-flops.”
“Part of our goal here at CCMC is to provide the resources that they can take those next steps,” Carter said.
“I say to people many times a week, ‘I’m not going to work harder at this than you are. This is your life. You’ve got to make the choices, but I can put a banquet or resources before you.'”