The 2020 point-in-time count of Oklahoma City’s persons who are experiencing homelessness sent volunteers out Thursday to find those who are often overlooked.
Free Press joined a team of volunteers that gathered with a total of 80 volunteers at 3:15 a.m. at the Oklahoma City Homeless Alliance Westtown facility at N.W. 3rd and N. Virginia.
The staff of the Oklahoma City Homeless Alliance who had conducted volunteer training the afternoon before handed out kits to team leaders and the team leaders went over the strategy for finding persons living outdoors in a section marked off for each group.
The teams were organized and out on the streets at 4:00 a.m. to find the unsheltered before they were up and moving about.
In all, around 200 volunteers will have worked in some phase of the count that lasts all day.
Results of the count each year are submitted to the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD). The numbers are used by HUD to determine what grant money is needed for each city to address homelessness. HUD then releases the numbers each summer.
But, how did each team know where to look?
“We work pretty hard to get intelligence on where people that are unsheltered are staying,” said Executive Director Dan Straughan later in the morning. He still had mud on his shoes from finding the camps his team was sent out to survey.
“And, this year felt like we had much more robust and sophisticated maps of where those folks were.”
The Oklahoma City Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team keeps tabs on where people are living outdoors as well as several other agencies that help those in need. They are the ones who provide the core intelligence which keeps changing right up to the day before the count.
Straughan said that this year, team leaders were made to go out ahead of time and make sure they knew where the camps were before leading their team into them. It sped up the process and could contribute to a more comprehensive count this year.
I don’t know if the numbers will be higher or lower for the street count,” said Straughan. “But, I think we did a better job of getting all those people there than we ever have in the past.”
Straughan told us that “over 100” agencies work together better than ever to coordinate services to homeless persons but the unsheltered, or those living outdoors, are continuing to rise in number.
Free Press went along with Team 11 led by Cale Powers, the Oklahoma City Veterans Administration homeless program coordinator. When we encountered veterans, it gave Powers a good connection for further outreach work with the VA.
The team was assigned to an area downtown along Reno, Sheridan, and Main from Scissortail Park to Classen.
When we found people sleeping outdoors, Team 11 members went through a short survey of those who gave consent to be interviewed to find out basic information on who they were.
The team’s job was to collect information on who the people were and what they needed, not to determine why they were on the street.
The team found 14 people sleeping outdoors. A few were in tents but most were in sleeping bags trying to stay out of the heavy, cold mist that was coming down from a black sky at that time of the morning.
Each had worked out their own way of adapting.
Johnny had a tent with part of another tent added on top to it to fight off the cold.
DaVon was in one sleeping bag with another unzipped and spread on top.
Richard had found a recessed doorway where he put down cardboard to insulate him from the cold concrete as he slept in a sleeping bag.
And “Spartacus” was sleeping under an awning of a store to stay dry.
Elected officials volunteer
Oklahoma County Commissioner Carrie Blumert volunteered to work with a team and was there at Westtown at 3:15. Why?
She said that Oklahoma County has a social services department that has several programs, one of which is providing grant money to organizations that are serving people who are homeless.
“So, in order for the commissioners to understand how to best serve that population, I think it’s important that we actually go out and talk to those people, meet them and hear their story and learn about how the homeless Alliance runs their operation,” Blumert said.
“I think it’s very important that I do this kind of thing … rather than just making decisions up in my office.”
Representative Cyndi Munson, HD 85 in north Oklahoma City and the Village, was also there at 3:15 to join her team as they went out into the city.
“I think it’s extremely important that someone like me is out, hearing real-life stories about someone who’s experiencing homelessness to understand why it’s important for us at a state level to be funding services that ultimately trickle down into our local communities,” Munson said.
She said that it’s important for legislators to “get on the ground” with the homeless and learn how they are navigating systems and services.
“We need to make sure that we’re advocating at all levels of government,” Munson said.
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