A man. A plan. The Van
‘Homeless Heretic’ a one-man outreach fulfilling the needs of the needy.
Aaron Reddin heads deeper into the woods. Branches scratch the sides of his Chevrolet van. Jagged shrub stumps scrape the van’s bottom. Down a hill, along a path big enough — barely — for a van to squeeze through.
It’s a tight fit, but Reddin is on a mission. He knows a homeless couple — the woman is pregnant — reside in the greening woods he’s bushwhacking through with his kind of, almost white van. Kind of, almost because one side is spray-painted with red and black flames, and its short, sloping hood is yellow with black stripes.
So the van moans and groans, coming to a stop where the path splinters into smaller trails disappearing into the heavy undergrowth. This is the spot. Reddin parks and leaves the van, checking to see if the couple will allow visitors.
He vanishes into the woods, but returns a minute or two later. The couple have departed the makeshift camp, perhaps returning to the hospital. Reddin knows the woman is close to her delivery date.
Since the camp is abandoned and has been for a few days, Reddin invites us for a quick glimpse of it. The site is perched on a slope. Dense underbrush provides shade from the sun. Through the thicket, the dome of the Arkansas State Capitol is visible. But in the foreground, there is a stained red sofa, two tents empty of belongings and trash strewn about the small clearing. A lonesome sock hangs on a branch.
Even though the camp is deserted, it feels invasive being there. Eerily similar to standing in the living room of a stranger’s home when no one’s there. We depart the campsite.
Back at the van, Reddin calls out through the trees and brush. There’s no answer. He whistles a few times, hoping he’ll call some of the people he knows populate the area to his van filled with food, blankets, tents, hygiene supplies, bottled water and other items.
Reddin continues yelling into the woods. There’s a rustling down the hill. The movement of an animal? He calls again. He whistles.
“Who is it?” A woman’s voice from down the hill answers.
“It’s Aaron. Who are you?”
Aaron Reddin is a burly fellow. Stout. Clad in blue jeans, short-sleeve button up and backward turned Arkansas Razorback cap, he looks like a construction foreman on a day off. He’s not. He works 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at St. Francis House, as the assistant director of the veterans re-entry program for the nonprofit, social outreach program founded by the Episcopal Church.
During the afternoons, he captains The Van, a mobile answer to central Arkansas’ homeless challenge.
“I decided to buy a thousand dollar van,” Reddin says, “just a crappy, ol’ van and we’re going to make it work.”
He sent the word out, using social media, and soon an unknown car dealer had purchased The Van and dropped it off at Reddin’s friend’s business.
“I didn’t even know the dude,” Reddin says. “He straight out signed The Van over to me.”
Since Feb. 25, The Van has gathered what it can and then given it all away. Reddin drives The Van all over central Arkansas. Down downtown alleys. To the homeless camps. Under bridges and into the woods. The Van rattles and shakes. It mechanically aches. But it brings hope on four wheels.
Everyone who rides in The Van signs it. That’s the one rule. Its insides and outsides contain words of thanks — “The van is a little multi-colored piece of heaven.” — and nonsensical markings such as “I like Oreos” alike. Even instructions from Jesus: “Give to anyone who ask.”
Reddin is fueled by his faith, mentioning his passion for Christ. But The Van’s mission is less talk about Jesus and more action. It’s more about “What can I do to make life as comfortable as I can for you right now,” Reddin says.
Reddin knows about living on the streets. He grew up in Danville, got into drugs. At 20, he was living in his car. But one night he walked into a church. Turned his life around. Joined the Marine Corps. After getting out, he decided his special knowledge would best help the homeless, especially homeless veterans. He started working as director of the men’s treatment program at the Union Rescue Mission. He worked there for three years before transitioning to St. Francis eight months ago.
Reddin goes out in The Van when he gets off work from St. Francis. Sometimes every day for a stretch. He estimates the Little Rock area has 15 to 20 homeless camps. Some downtown. Some in west Little Rock. He visits homeless in Conway and other bedroom communities of Little Rock. But he also finds the people who sleep in the nooks and crannies. The men near the Little Rock Police Department building. A man near an electric power substation. He spends a lot of time “looking for those people who are not where everyone is.”
“There are days when I go out and come home and The Van is empty,” he says. “There are days when it’s not. It just depends on who is at the camps. Every day is different in The Van.”
On weekends The Van is converted to a mobile hair salon. Some supplies are removed, and a barber’s chair is positioned inside. A friend who works for a Benton salon cuts the hair, and Reddin hands out supplies. It’s a small act with significance.
Knowing you’ll never get a haircut again? “What’s that got to feel like?” Reddin asks.
“I want to meet people’s basic needs,” Reddin says. “At the same time it’s not just a pair of socks or a haircut. It’s dignity.
“Not every person on the street is trying to get two bucks to go smoke crack. I know that’s the stereotype. I got a bunch of friends out on the street, and I don’t know any of them that want to be out there.”
The Van is fueled through collected aluminum cans. Reddin cashes them in for gas money. But the supplies are all donated. People are good about helping Reddin’s “peon, grassroots” organization of a handful. And Reddin is smart about using social media. He knows his fellow generation Xers and Yers are all about pitching in and helping.
“This [van] has like 300 Facebook friends,” he says, patting the dusty, cracked dashboard of The Van.
“You make a need known and [people] are pretty awesome to respond. Our generation is like, ‘Everyone, bring your toys to the yard and let’s play.’ If you want to take care of people, and I want to take of people: That’s our common goal.”
Reddin uses a 3,000-square-foot space at a friend’s warehouse — shameless plug for “big boy toy auction house” Adventure Auction Company — for stockpiling donated supplies.
“It’s a little out of the way, but it’s all right,” Reddin says. “When you are poor and helping poor people you got to be resourceful.”
The space is packed with needs of the homeless. 6,000 meals ready to eat. Tents. Boxes of towels. Toilet paper. A box of peanut butter containers.
Instead of asking, “What’s the biggest need for the homeless,” Reddin says imagine “yourself living in a tent.”
“Think about yourself being in a tent and how you want to help.”
Reddin doesn’t call them homeless or less fortunate. He calls them friends. He says they know more than us about community, as they live on the outer edges of it. Calls them completely loyal. He likes the friendships he forms. He dislikes the thought of seeing needs every day that he can’t meet. He doesn’t like that he has to eventually go home and go to sleep.
Reddin’s next idea is a converting a two-stall horse trailer over to a portable shower unit. Sanitize the trailer, and turn each stall into separate shower with changing areas. Load it with a 250-gallon water tank. He’s got the trailer already, showing photographs of it on his cell phone.
He’s talking to Hot Dog Mike about teaming up to help the homeless. He is in the process of starting a nonprofit centered around The Van. He doesn’t know what it will be called or whether it will be limited to Arkansas. It’s early in the process.
Susan is a middle-aged woman with the top of her red hair slowly going gray. She lived in Illinois for a while and Mountain Home. Came to Little Rock about nine months ago to care for her brother. She’s only been homeless for a couple of weeks, sleeping within sight of the state capitol for the past three days.
Reddin asks her if she needs anything, and she replies, “Water.” Reddin gets her water and starts loading up several bags of food as well. Ramen noodles. Frozen foods in tinfoil trays. Chips. Gatorade.
Susan is so thankful she gushes.
“I can’t believe how much food I have,” she says. “Oh my goodness! I got enough food to share with people.”
He gives her a bag with tampons, toothpaste and deodorant. He gives her donated blankets in a waterproof bag and a rug for softening the rough ground where she sleeps.
The food and supplies are carried down into the woods. Susan’s camp is a single tent in a small clearing. There are other tents nearby supposedly, but they can’t been seen through the thick brush. There’s the skeleton of a suitcase nearby. Empty bottles. Trash. Susan starts unpacking her newfound booty.
“Hopefully, no bears come by,” she says. “This is Arkansas. We got black bears. There are creatures out here.”
Reddin has agreed to give Susan a lift to the Salvation Army. It’s nearing mealtime there.
“I don’t have to go,” she says. “But I’m gonna go just to get out for a while.”
Back in The Van, Susan rides shotgun. No room to turn The Van around in the woods, Reddin is forced to back up the same path he barreled down a half hour ago.
In front of Episcopal Collegiate School, Reddin pulls The Van to the side of Cantrell Road. He recognizes two homeless men sitting by the side of the road. The trio chat for a while. One needs an air mattress. Reddin leaves a voice note about his need on his phone.
Pulling back onto Cantrell, The Van groans up a hill. Before turning toward the Salvation Army, Reddin asks Susan where she wants to be dropped off. He parks, and Susan turns and thanks everyone present. Reddin tells her to be safe.
“I’ll be fine,” she says, hopping out of the van. “I’m tough.”
You believe the latter, but you wonder about the former.
HELP THE VAN:
The best way to reach Aaron Reddin? Talk to The Van. It has a Facebook page that can be found by searching for The Van and a Twitter account @ItsTheVan. Reddin, the person, can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @HomelessHeretic