By Caleb Hennington
Digital Content Editor
Buried deep within the Ozark Mountains of Northwest Arkansas sits Eureka Springs — a town of just over 2,000 citizens – where the intersection of faith and art meet in endlessly unique ways.
There’s the famous Great Passion Play, a weekly event that takes place from May through October of each year and retells the story of Jesus Christ’s last days on earth.
There’s the Eureka Springs Art Colony, which sits at the base of the road leading up to the Great Passion Play, and is a place where artists from all over the country live and work together with other artists to display their artwork through various mediums.
And there’s also the town of Eureka Springs itself, a beautiful Victorian-era spa town which many consider to be the most LGBT-friendly town in Arkansas, and — perhaps — the most LGBT-friendly small town in America (an anomaly in a typically conservative state in the South).
All of these different cultures and lifestyles intersect in the town to create a community where uniqueness is celebrated, diversity is welcomed, and “weirdness” is the norm.
But it isn’t just Eureka Springs dedication to being different that makes it a fascinating place to live; it’s also the dedication of its citizens to make the town a better place for all, no matter what a person’s living situation happens to be.
That’s where ECHO Village comes into the picture. ECHO Village is the brainchild of Suzie Bell and her husband, Dr. Dan Bell.
ECHO Village is a living community for individuals who are homeless, low income, or in need of financial assistance in some form (single mothers, people recovering from drug addiction, former prisoners, etc.)
The idea for the community sprung from conversations that Suzie and her husband were having while working and managing ECHO clinic – which stands for Eureka Christian Health Outreach – a faith-based free medical clinic for uninsured, low-income individuals who are at or below the federal poverty level.
The Bells founded ECHO together in 2005 through conversations they had at their local United Methodist Church’s Bible study. They realized there was a need in the town for a health clinic for those who were unable to pay for medical care on their own.
The clinic provides medical, dental, optometry care, physical therapy, counseling, pharmaceutical needs, and other services, and is staffed completely with volunteer doctors and physicians. Its mission is to “joyfully provide the best healthcare possible to individuals in need so that all feel God’s love through the experience.”
Over the years, ECHO clinic has seen people of all backgrounds and needs come through its doors. An astounding number of clinic patients – more than 40 percent, according to Suzie – are housing insecure, meaning they are either homeless or living with a friend or family.
“We realized that when we’re treating patients – let’s say someone who has bipolar disorder, for example – and we’re giving them the help they need, but then sending them back out into the world without a healthy environment to live, then we’re really not solving the problem,” Suzie said. “That’s why we decided that we had to do something more to give them some assistance.”
As a simple solution, ECHO was putting people up in motel rooms, but a motel room is only a temporary fix for someone who is living without a permanent home. Something more needed to be done.
So, Suzie set out to find a way to solve the problem of homelessness in the town. She wrote a grant application to receive funding for a mental health home, with the intention of providing a place that could serve as a stepping stone for people to pull themselves out of whatever dire situation they may be in at the time.
After receiving their grant money for the first home, the Bells purchased 10 acres of land on Passion Play Road, and have dedicated the land for as many as 26 small homes to be built on it.
The houses will be built in phases, with phase 1 consisting of the first eight homes that will make up the inaugural ECHO Village community.
These are not “tiny homes,” however – they are full-size residencies for families. The smallest of the homes is 450 square feet but the largest homes can be as large as 1,400 square feet. The homes will come furnished with necessary appliances, including a washer and dryer.
The task of building the homes in ECHO Village is being completed by volunteers from various church groups around Arkansas, and even some outside of Arkansas. They also partnered with World Mission Builders – a group that normally builds churches around the country – and in a few short days, a group of 66 volunteers had the framework of the first eight houses up and set into the foundation.
First United Methodist Church Eureka Springs has also been a huge asset for the work of completing the homes in the Village. They have volunteered time and money to sponsor the building of a 2-bedroom home in the Village, and once residents have moved into the Village, church volunteers will also be offering their time to teach free classes at the Village. These classes will cover topics such as how to balance a checkbook, how to budget your money, how to write a resume and other courses that will help residents make a better life for themselves.
As far as requirements for applying to live in ECHO Village, residents will need to agree to follow the covenant of the Village in cooperating with one another and helping each other when a need arises.
“If you’re a single mom living there, and you need someone to watch your child until you get off work at 5, then maybe it will be the elderly neighbor next door who provides childcare for you while you are away. You have to agree to work together and share the gifts that you have with others in the community,” Suzie said.
Rent fees required to live in ECHO Village will be based on the residents’ incomes and will be adjusted to a fair rate based on higher or lower income.
Residents are also required to undergo a police background check. No violent offenders or sexual predators will be allowed to live in ECHO Village, in order to ensure the safety of all residents.
Those who are homeless – with no source of income – would either qualify for a transitional residency in the Village until they can provide for themselves, or ECHO will work with individuals to get them HUD qualified, meaning 100% of their rent would be paid by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Suzie expects the first eight homes to be finished sometime this fall, with residents moving in soon after if all goes according to plan.
“There’s going to be pride in this. We hope that we can get these people in these homes soon” Suzie said. “They aren’t going to be fancy, but they’re going to be nice and it’s going to be something that we hope will give them great pride in themselves.”