For Chris Joannides, becoming executive director of the Riverview Hope Campus was a calling that arose from his own life experiences.
Joannides, who is originally from Cheyenne, Wyo., became executive director of the Hope Campus in March. He said his decision to pursue a career in homeless ministry stemmed from "personal struggles" from years past.
"I fell in love with it," he said. "I just saw hope and stayed."
Joannides worked as a car dealer in Cheyenne for 20 years before making his decision to work in homeless ministry seven years ago. Joannides said he battled a drug addiction while holding this position without his customers knowing.
“It’s stressful, because it’s like you live a secret life," he said of his addiction. "Nobody really knew I had issues."
Joannides eventually received treatment for his addictions and remained sober for the following year. It was after the year of sobriety that Joannides decided to step into the field of social advocacy.
"Everything changed," he said. "When you take away all the bad stuff, you start to see light.”
In an effort to reorient himself in this field, Joannides decided to earn a degree at the University of Wyoming. He said he got involved with the homeless population through his degree's internship requirement, which he chose to fulfill at Cheyenne's local homeless shelter.
"They are no different than you and I. The only difference is, I have a safety net, and they didn’t have a safety net," Joannides said. "There’s a lot of disorders, a lot of mental disorders, a lot of mental issues, but mostly, life happens.”
After earning his degree, Joannides became a case worker at the shelter. While working there, he held the dream of running a homeless shelter.
"My prior boss had talked about it and said, ‘It would be great if we could have a big building, have a lot of things under one roof,'" he said.
Joannides' dream was fulfilled when he was hired as executive director of the Hope Campus. He said he "stumbled across" the position's opening on the Internet.
So far, Joannides has enjoyed living in Fort Smith.
"The population is good, the community has been great, the weather is good," he said.
While Joannides spoke positively about the area, he also pointed out unique factors in its homeless population. He specifically mentioned a lack of affordable housing and the prevalence of mental health issues as a unique challenge within the population.
“I can admit somebody, they can get them stable on their meds, but then those folks are gonna get released out into the public again somewhere," he said. "They need long-term residential care.”
Goals that Joannides has are limiting panhandling and addressing hunger. He said that while the prevalence of churches and organizations that give free meals in Fort Smith is a good thing, long-term success in this area comes from teaching the homeless population how to manage their own resources.
“We all need to eat, but that’s not the cure," he said. "That’s just a meal.”
For now, Joannides is looking forward to seeing how the Hope Campus will be used.
“This is a wonderful facility for Fort Smith," he said. "I say we need to own it.”