"Fort Smith is a uniquely caring community," John Foster, director of case management at The Next Step Homeless Services, said. "This city attracts the homeless because the community cares for the homeless."
We had heard indirect confirmation of this sentiment earlier that day when we were at the Fort Smith Public Library. Two librarians were talking about a local homeless man who had been stabbed and hospitalized. "I hope it wasn't one of ours," one of the librarians said with real concern in her voice.
John mentioned the same stabbing. His wife had asked him the night before, "Was that one of yours?" John had to say it was. (Happily, later news reports revealed the hospitalized man is going to be okay.)
John began working with Next Step two and a half years ago. For twenty-seven years before that, John had been working in mental health service, and when he was done with that he thought he was done working. "But He had other ideas," John said, pointing heavenward.
Next Step was founded in 2002 when a man named Gary Hays saw that homeless people in the area had nowhere to go during the day. He went to St. John's Episcopal Church for help. The church offered a building for use as a day room. Next Step Day Room offered warm food and a TV room and soon offered much more.
A slogan for the the program is "Seeking solutions to homelessness one individual at a time," and one of the primary solutions the program utilizes is employment. To that end, Next Step offers job counseling, psychological assessment, life-skills training, message and mail services, and even make-overs to look right for the interview.
Next Step also helps people who've been without I.D. for years to find their paperwork. John said he tells people who come in with, say, a driver's license, "Don't lose track of that, it's precious."
Next Step receives limited government support (primarily because of their provision for veterans), some help from the United Way, and support from individuals and churches. St. John's Episcopal Church does charge Next Step Homeless Services for the rent: every year they have to come up with one whole dollar.