At the beginning of the year, Oklahoma City was facing a historically large increase in its homeless population.
The point-in-time count, a volunteer-based initiative that counts the homeless population every year, reported to the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department that there are nearly 1,500 people in Oklahoma City that are homeless daily.
With these record numbers combined with the economic impacts of the pandemic—countless Oklahomans facing evictions and homeless shelters having to slice their operation capacities in half—in a way, gasoline was thrown on fire.
Dan Straughan is the Executive Director of the Homeless Alliance and he spoke with Free Press over the phone to describe the circumstances that the homeless population in Oklahoma City and Oklahoma County will be facing this holiday season.
The Homeless Alliance provides essential services to those experiencing housing and food insecurity.
The organization consists of a group of professionals such as case managers, physicians and social workers from over 30 different non-profit agencies within the Oklahoma City area.
Usually, the organization’s day shelter serves as a cafeteria where people can get a free hot meal and have somewhere to cool off or warm up, depending on the season. However, the pandemic has changed operations.
Meals at the day shelter are now served to-go and it has turned into an overnight shelter due to severe winter weather.
Typically Oklahoma City’s seven overnight shelters would go into overflow, however, they have cut their capacity in half for safety reasons and have left more homeless people needing shelter.
While many homeless shelters have made the necessary changes during the pandemic, there are more potential challenges to come.
The Oklahoma County courthouse shut down from the middle of March until May, delaying many eviction notices.
However, between the time the courthouse reopened in May and when the eviction moratorium was set by the CDC in September, there were over 900 household evictions in Oklahoma County.
The eviction moratorium will end on December 31 and what’s to come could be devastating. Straughan claimed that Legal Aid has projected there to be roughly 20,000 potential evictions in Oklahoma County.
“If there are literally 20,000 evictions [in Oklahoma County] in January and February, the community can’t absorb that, we just can’t,” Straughan explained.
He said that he has seen a drastic increase in people seeking assistance due to financial impacts of the pandemic.
“We see a lot of people who live on the edge. You know the cliché is one paycheck away from being homeless,” Straughan said. “But with the pandemic, there seems to be so much more of that. People that had something of a cushion back in May have gone through that cushion in November.”
As Straughan spoke with Free Press, he described how he had just helped unload a car full of toys for the Homeless Alliance’s annual program in which people can donate toys and gifts for those in need during the holidays.
“Oklahoma City is a generous community and we have had people step up to the challenge, which isn’t to say that we’re not strapped [for money], we’re always strapped,” Straughan said when asked about how the Homeless Alliance is handling their high demands during the pandemic.
Straughan believes that there is a strong collaborating ability between nonprofits, religious groups, and municipalities due to past circumstances such as tornadoes and the Oklahoma City bombing.
“There’s kind of a silver lining to being disaster prone in that it has taught the government, faith based and non-profit providers, and the community that there are some disasters that are just too big to look to the Red Cross or municipal government—it has got to be all of those [groups] coming together,” he said.
One example of this collaboration is how the Homeless Alliance works with law enforcement daily, especially the OCPD Homeless Outreach Team. Staff members also help educate new officers on how to handle people facing housing insecurity.
Pandemic Hits Homeless Last
Since the start of the pandemic, homeless shelters in Oklahoma City have been strictly following CDC guidelines, which has benefited them in the long run.
“The positivity rate among the homeless population in Oklahoma City and the staff who serves them is only three percent, so we’re less than a quarter of the rate in our population than it is in the general population,” Straughan said.
He strictly attributes this low rate to “following the science,” on top of homeless people not being at super spreader events such as restaurants and stores.
There have been over 3,000 COVID-19 tests implemented within the homeless community and there are safety protocols for those who test positive for COVID-19.
The City Rescue Mission was once a traditional overnight homeless shelter and now has its focus on long-term homeless issues and substance abuse. They have allotted nearly 100 beds in their alternate care shelter where homeless people can stay if they test positive or have symptoms of the virus.
Currently, the Homeless Alliance has no plans for Christmas, other than distributing takeout meals on Christmas Eve.
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UPDATE: (12-5-20, 11:30 a.m.) We changed our identification of the City Rescue Mission to more accurately reflect its current mission of caring for the homeless.