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It was a squeeze getting into the Tower Theater Tuesday night as over 600 concerned city residents came to hear about the city’s homelessness situation.

The Homeless Alliance of Oklahoma City organized the event to bring together a number of people who could resource the audience on the current state of homelessness in the metro.

And, it was an evening of sobering numbers based on the point-in-time count done on a single night every year across the U.S to count the homeless, this year on January 24.

The numbers were dramatic.

  • 1,273 homeless individuals were counted on a single night
  • 384 unsheltered, meaning living outdoors
  • 738 in emergency shelters
  • 151 in transitional housing
  • 129 were veterans
  • 208 people were members of a homeless family
  • 394 reported severe mental illness
  • 430 suffered from substance abuse
  • 117 suffered from domestic violence
  • 85 were unaccompanied youth between the ages of 18-24

In spite of the gravity of the topic, the evening also featured encouragement from several speakers.

Moving forward

Dan Straughan, the Executive Director of the Homeless Alliance for 15 years, seemed to sum up his entire philosophy for serving the needs of the homeless:

“People who are experiencing homelessness are people.”

Homelessness presentation
Dan Straughan, in his 15th year as Executive Director of the Oklahoma City Homeless Alliance, closes reminding the audience that the old days of not caring for the poor are over. Brett Dickerson/Okla City Free Press

He told of the many different programs the Homeless Alliance coordinates and how we can get involved.

And then he closed with words intended to show a break with the past.

“Once upon a time, it may have been a day when we can turn our backs on our neighbors. Today’s not that day.”

“There may have been a day when we can walk away from the challenges we faced providing safe shelter for our brothers and sisters, our children and our elderly. Today is not that day.”

“There may have been a day when we allowed the sick, the lame, the poor to languish on our streets. Today is not that day.”

“Today’s the day we truly understand that together we can end homelessness!”

The crowd jumped to their feet with a long round of applause.

Next MAPS discussion

Mayor David Holt who held out the possibility of using part of a MAPS 4 sales tax to address the issue.

Homelessness presentation
David Holt, Oklahoma City Mayor, tells the 600+ present that the discussion for the next MAPS program will include the issue of homelessness. Brett Dickerson/Okla City Free Press

“People in this city are not just open-minded about a different set of priorities this time for MAPS, but actually started demanding a different set of priorities,” said Holt.

He said this time around there are demands for “more geographic distribution, and more emphasis on things like domestic violence and mental health, and substance abuse, reentry into society and homelessness.”

And the quiet, but persistent political pressure on city leaders was obvious and acknowledged by the Mayor.

This time, the city council has scheduled a series of meetings in July and August where public input will be encouraged.

And, one of those items on the agenda is going to be homelessness,” said Holt to applause and some cheering.

Pressure on MAPS 4

Judging from comments during and after the presentation, the pressure on Oklahoma City government this time may be much stronger for community support of many kinds, unlike the other three MAPS programs that were heavy with capital improvements, in many cases centered on downtown.

“I think the main thing that I’m taking away is holding the city accountable for making homeless services a priority in MAPS 4,” said Elizabeth Sidler. She works for Generation Citizen, an organization that resources teachers for more effective civics education.

We talked with Mayor Holt after the event was over and he was direct about the interest in the community for the next MAPS to address homelessness in the community.

“I sense that there’s really more support for addressing this issue than maybe ever before in Oklahoma City,” said Holt.

“That’s where the people’s heads are at right now, you know, it’s issues like that and substance abuse and mental health and domestic violence,”

“I think that’s going to be a very strong component of an ultimate MAPS 4 package.”