April 21, 2011 by wcobserver
By Susan McCarthy
WEST FORK- Over the past several weeks, the 2010 census’s impact on congressional redistricting has topped news reports as lawmakers debate whether Fayetteville and Prairie Grove will become part of the fourth district. There is another census that hasn’t gotten nearly as much ink but has motivated two West Fork women…the increase in homeless people in Northwest Arkansas.
Paula Dutton and Norma Burns of West Fork hope to get their community’s help over the next two months to make at least one sleeping bag a week for the area’s homeless.
Homelessness in Washington and Benton Counties has seen a sharp increase over the past two years according to a Point in Time Census of homeless people conducted by the Community and Family Institute (CFI), which is headed by Dr. Kevin Fitzpatrick at the University of Arkansas. The CFI census is not part of the U.S. Census.
According to the 2011 CFI census, the number of homeless in Northwest Arkansas increased 36 percent. In 2009 there were 1287 people without homes. In 2011 that number rose to 2001. The most recent census was conducted in January and is the third CFI has completed; two other censuses were conducted of the area’s homeless in 2007 and 2009.
“Almost two thirds of those we talked to were homeless for the first time,” said Fitzpatrick who said downsizing and foreclosures are factors that have led to an increase in homelessness.
Fitzpatrick said that his numbers include those that are still holding down jobs, but have been forced to move in with family or friends.
“I have a heart for trying to help other people. And for the homeless. I’ve tried to help in the past and you can’t solve all their problems. This is just a small way to help them,” said Dutton.
Dutton and Burns plan to make what they call “Ugly Quilts” every Tuesday throughout April and May at the West Fork Community Center. (See box for details)
“They’re really not ugly, but it’s less intimidating,” said Dutton who explained that you don’t have to know how to sew to be a part of the project. She said people are needed to help cut fabric, and much of the project involves tying.
The quilted sleeping bags will be made out of men’s ties, comforters, jeans and other sturdy clothing people don’t want anymore. Donations of these items can be dropped off at the West Fork Community Center on Tuesday mornings or at the West Fork Renewable Resource Center on Saturday mornings. Dutton said they plan to distribute their sleeping bags to the West Fork Fire Station, West Fork Public Schools and the Seven Hills Homeless Shelter in Fayetteville.
Both West Fork and Greenland school districts report they have a number of students they consider “families in transition” at any given time and qualify for homeless services. Both say the numbers fluctuate almost daily, but their districts do what they can to bring stability to these students including, clothing, shoes, tutoring, free meals and even transportation.
“We have a few more than some of the smaller school districts because we have an emergency transitional shelter in our district,” said Diana Skelton, the homeless coordinator for the West Fork School District.
Skelton said they typically have 15-20 students who are classified as homeless, students without an adequate fixed and regular nighttime residence.
Dutton says she was inspired to make “Ugly Quilts” or sleeping bags for the homeless after reading an article about a woman who was helped by a homeless man on the streets of New York City while her son was undergoing cancer treatments in 1979. The woman, Flo Wheatley, went on to establish a national non-profit organization called, “My Brother’s Keeper” which has resulted in thousands of “Ugly Quilts” for the homeless.
This won’t be the first time Dutton has made “Ugly Quilts.” She made them previously with a group of home school students and used the quilt project as a way to teach the kids simple sewing techniques.
Dutton and Burns recently met when Burns joined West Fork Quilters after retiring as an instructional aide last year at Greenland Middle School. Burns said she and Dutton had been discussing volunteering at the West Fork Community Center when they began brainstorming about working on the quilts.
“I like learning about quilting and also like to help out,” said Burns. “I believe you have to give back in any way you can to your community. It’s a worthwhile thing to do.”