5 minute read

Oklahoma City Police organized and conducted a town hall on homelessness Thursday that revealed a far more complex set of circumstances that may not be recognized by the general public.

Dan Straughan, executive director of the Homeless Alliance, provided the audience with some realities of homelessness and how to address it.

Police leadership pointed to the role of property owners in problems residents have with homeless people.

They also identified certain acts of good will that many churches and other organizations do as contributing to homeless persons not getting more organized and long-term help they need.

The Hefner Division of the Oklahoma City Police Department organized the event held at the Will Rogers Park Exhibition Center at NW 36th Street and I-44. It was a part of their outreach requirements in the department.

Baseline realities

Straughan set some baseline perspectives on homelessness that those new to the topic may not know.

Typically, there is an assumption that the people who are homeless are that way because of an individual failure of intent on their part.

Homelessness
Dan Straughan, executive director of the Homeless Alliance presents some figures on Oklahoma City’s homeless problem. Brett Dickerson/Okla City Free Press

But, Straughan pointed out that there are three types of problems that contribute to homelessness in Oklahoma City.

“Structural failures” are the larger and harder to identify trends that push even more people into living on the street such as steadily increasing residential rents, especially in the center city.

Because of rent increases especially in the older parts of Oklahoma City, some with low-paying jobs can no longer afford rent even in the least expensive housing.

An example Straughan gave of “System failures” is the reality that around half of those kids who “age out” of the foster care system at on their 18th birthday will become homeless.

“Individual circumstances”, said Straughan, are such things as family conflicts, mental illness and addiction.

Straughan said there has been an “explosion of unsheltered homeless” in Oklahoma City and “the shelters are full.”

Housing first

Later, Ward 6 Councilwoman JoBeth Hamon asked about the “housing first” model of addressing homelessness.

“Why people are homeless is because people don’t have homes,” said Straughan emphatically.

He pointed to the growing numbers of people who are unsheltered and contributing to the public’s alarm that drove so many to attend the meeting that evening.

“Oklahoma City is where San Francisco was 20 years ago,” said Straughan.

The statement referenced the increased homelessness in San Francisco as Silicon Valley execs started bidding up property values in the oldest part of the city starting 20 years ago and continuing today.

JoBeth Hamon
Oklahoma City Councilwoman JoBeth Hamon asks Dan Straughan about the “housing first” model. Brett Dickerson/Okla City Free Press

Later, an audience member implied that there just aren’t enough laws on the books to control the misbehavior and drug addiction of the homeless.

In response, Straughan said, “Mental illness is not a choice. Addiction is not a choice.”

He explained that the housing first model addresses the base problem of the homeless, which is that they don’t have the security and stability of a regular place to live in order to work on the deeper mental illness and addiction problems that continue to hold them back.

The Homeless Alliance is further developing the model by expanding the apartments they are renting with donations and placing the homeless in homes to create necessary stability.

Police perspective

But, the presence of several members of the police department that regularly interact with the homeless provided some added perspective that some may or may not agree with.

And, it their message wasn’t just “obey the law.”

Most of the comments from police officials was that they find themselves in binds, sometimes knowing the problem but not being able to do much about them.

Police officials pointed to three sets of actions contributing to the problems people are having with homeless persons in Oklahoma City.

Cash

“Stop giving money to the homeless!” said Sergeant Bob Skalla.

His point supported by several other police leaders at the meeting was that when well-meaning people give cash to the homeless they are exacerbating that person’s problems.

Skalla said that as long as the homeless are given cash, they avoid seeking more long-term help and systems of help that could move them off of the street and back into al productive life.

He said that in most cases, the essential need of that homeless person is water.

Church “help”

In a side conversation with Free Press, Major D. Nelson said that a growing problem with the actions of some church groups and others is giving out supplies such as clothes and tents to the homeless which again, keeps them on the street and gives them temporary incentive to continue to live a transient life instead of seeking more consistent help.

As well, Nelson said many of the complaints they get about abandoned clothes, sleeping bags and tents littering neighborhoods is because some groups continue to push those items onto the homeless in order to feel like they are making a difference.

He repeated some of these points in the open session as well.

Property owners

Police leaders told the crowd that a significant problem not often addressed is that property owners will allow the homeless to camp on their property and then will not clean up the property.

They said that when officers are called to a property about problems with a homeless camp, unless the property owner agrees to sign a complaint, there is little the officers can do unless they witness a crime being committed.

“We cannot clean up a lot without permission from the property owner,” said Skalla.

Homeless Outreach Team

Sgt. Felix Valadez is on the Homeless Outreach Team, a two-person unit assigned specifically to work with the homeless.

Free Press reported on the unit in 2018 and the unique work they do that is a mix of interactive police work and social work.

Valadez
Homeless Outreach Team member Sgt Felix Valadez responds to a question at the town hall. Brett Dickerson/Okla City Free Press

He said that they connect the homeless to many community resources and sometimes make arrests, but only as a last resort.

Valadez said that sometimes the public becomes frustrated with the police department for not just rounding up the homeless and putting them in jail.

But, that is not a possibility in many cases even when they believe it might help.

“Unless you are a threat to yourself or someone else, there’s not much we can do,” said Valadez.



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