A Christmas Day blizzard pummeled Arkansas last year, dumping more than 9 inches of snow on Little Rock—the most in the city’s history. The record-breaking ice, snow and wind contributed to the deaths of a dozen people as the storm traveled across the country and left more than 200,000 in the state without power. People seeking warmth and shelter jammed the city’s hotel rooms or doubled up on relatives’ sofas.
Jimmy Treece didn’t have that luxury. When the freezing temperatures and whiteout conditions hit, he was sleeping in a tent in the woods right outside the city. His bedroom for nearly five months held only a few blankets, some sheets and a slim wardrobe—the staples of a life untethered.
Treece, 61, was among hundreds of homeless people in the Little Rock woods that night. When a two-year prison sentence for drug possession ended the previous summer, he had no place to go. Little Rock’s official homeless population is between 1,200 and 2,000, according to the advocacy group Central Arkansas Team Care for the Homeless, but experts say there could be hundreds more taking cover in the woods to avoid being detected by police. They have good reason to hide: Though Little Rock’s homeless numbers pale in comparison to cities like New York and San Francisco, last year the National Coalition for the Homeless named Little Rock America’s “meanest city” toward the homeless—police harassment and the city-led sweeps are notorious here.
The homeless in the woods rarely “group up,” says Treece, to avoid attracting attention. On Christmas night he was alone in his flooded tent. By daybreak, it had collapsed. The sun rose on December 26 into a cloudless sky, and Treece dug himself out. He was broke and freezing.
But later that morning, he saw a vehicle pull up on a dirt trail not far away. At the wheel was Aaron Reddin, a stocky, goateed 31-year-old whose long hair was tied back with a camouflage bandana.
The Van, as his primary vehicle is known, has become an almost Pavlovian signal of relief to Little Rock’s homeless. Reddin has been driving around the city and into the surrounding woods for the past two years, delivering supplies. To Treece, the sight of Reddin was a lifeline. “I heard the vehicle pull up. I peeked out my tent, and I didn’t think anything, but then once I heard his voice, I knew who it was,” Treece says. “I had nowhere to go. [Reddin] came right on time.”
The Van is often the most visible part of The One, Inc., the nonprofit organization Reddin founded in 2011 to help a cause close to his heart. After struggling with his own drug addiction during his teens, Reddin got clean and found work at homeless shelters and rehab centers. “Once I found God, I started trying to help folks I could relate to,” he says. “I saw there were a lot of people living unsheltered with a lot of needs unmet…until someone went out there and helped them.” His charity is named for the Christ parable in which a shepherd leaves his 99 sheep to find the lone missing one, the one lost soul.
Reddin was moved by the sight of homeless people turned away from full shelters. So he posed a simple proposal on Facebook: If someone would give him $1,000, he’d buy a van and drive it around Little Rock to bring the homeless supplies they desperately needed. He did better than that. In less than a week, a man whom he’d never met donated a 2005 Ford from his used-car lot.
From that initial interaction, Reddin has built a philanthropic machine, combining old-time grit with modern-day social media. A 15,000-square-foot warehouse in North Little Rock—an auction house in another life—serves as The One’s headquarters. There, Reddin and his colleagues store all the donated items, including blankets, sunscreen, clean clothes and canned food, much of which they solicit using Twitter and Facebook. The original van has more than 1,000 followers on Twitter (@itsthevan) and more than 3,500 Facebook likes. “I built most of what we’re able to do through social media,” Reddin says. “It’s how we’re able to tell people what we need when.”
We have two fridges that we desperately need repaired/serviced. Does anybody know anybody?
— The Van (@ItsTheVan) July 18, 2013
And tweeting builds The One’s volunteer base.
Hauling ice and hanging out with friends at a camp. Perfect way to enjoy a dreary Sunday afternoon.
— The Van (@ItsTheVan) October 27, 2013
Reddin also relies on texts, emails and direct messages from the homeless to figure out exactly what to bring and when. “We hear people say, ‘Why does a homeless person have a phone?’ ” Reddin says. “We say, ‘It’s 2013. Everyone has a phone.’ ” (This is especially true in Arkansas where some phone companies, including Budget Mobile and AT&T, offer free “Lifeline” services to people enrolled in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as food stamps, and other government assistance programs.) The One receives anywhere from a handful to a few dozen requests every week, covering a wide range of items, from food to bug spray to blankets. “I have women calling me with two kids asking for diapers,” he says. “You know how expensive diapers are?”
Especially during the winter months, Reddin has to triage the requests to determine who is in the most desperate situation. Last winter, Jeffry McAfee, 52, qualified as an urgent case. McAfee was living at the edge of the woods near Little Rock when a thief made off with his tents and blankets, leaving him drenched during a rainstorm a few nights later. “Aaron found me in the middle of the woods,” McAfee says. “He brought me a tent, sleeping bag, blankets, clothes, and offered to come out the next day to take me in for a shower. There’s nobody else in Little Rock that’ll come get you, bring food to you, bring firewood to you…”
Since then, McAfee has been visited every week by The Van. “If there’s a dire need I text someone, and within a couple days they come out and bring it to me,” McAfee says.
The Van’s work—and Reddin’s uncompromising ethics—have made him something of a folk hero in Little Rock, a burly saint clad in ripped blue jeans. The local Sync Magazine has dubbed Reddin the “homeless heretic.” And his message is spreading. In addition to the original Van, Arkansas now boasts “The Mission Machine” in Searcy and “The Russ Bus” in Russellville— thanks to volunteers spurred by Reddin’s mission. Terry Smith, who drives the “VanLanta” in Atlanta, got word of The One last year and thought the same kind of operation could work in her city, right down to Reddin’s divine inspiration: She wrote “Jesus was homeless” in white ink on her van’s back window.
Josh Fendley, the founder of The People Tree, which helps Little Rock’s homeless through urban agriculture projects, recalls an eye-opening exchange with Reddin when the two were just getting their respective nonprofits off the ground. “I asked him one important question. ‘Tell my why you’re doing this: Do you love these people—do you feel in your heart this attraction and pull and love for them that makes you serve them—or is it a sense of rage that these people are in this state?’ ” Fendley says. “And he said the first one…love of the individual.”
That love brought Reddin to Jimmy Treece last Christmas. Reddin knew where Treece would be; he had given Treece the tent and other supplies five months earlier. When he drove down the dirt path into the trees, he knew Treece needed more than food and a few blankets. “Aaron brought me over to the warehouse, where he told me I’d stay until the snow melted,” Treece says.
And stay he did. Treece is a trained carpenter and electrician. After doing some routine maintenance around the warehouse, Reddin asked him to stay at the warehouse—where they both have their own bedrooms—and sign on permanently with The One. He agreed, and has been going on runs with Reddin for nearly a year, becoming almost as synonymous with The Van as Reddin. It is a remarkable transformation—a sheep, now found, has begun to care for his own flock.
“We go out almost every night,” he says. “All the camps have my phone number.”