6 minute read

OKLAHOMA CITY (Free Press) — While December of 2021 has been much milder than usual, in Oklahoma we can expect wild fluctuations in weather conditions during winter months.

In anticipation of freezing temperatures and other winter conditions, local organizations providing services for people experiencing homelessness have been preparing emergency shelter space for people to use during emergency conditions.

Current Plan

This year’s plan, developed by shelter directors and Oklahoma City staff, launched on December 6.

Each day, City staff checks the forecast for two nights ahead in the 73101 postal code. When the temperature is forecast to drop to 32 degrees or below, emergency shelters are given 48 hours of notice in order to spread awareness that they will be open.

Overflow shelter for those emergency nights will include space for 50-75 adults and children at the Homeless Alliance Day Shelter and 24 beds for women and children at the Salvation Army.

If a disaster similar to the extended period of freezing temperatures experienced in February of 2021 were to happen, City Rescue will open up 40-60 beds, and the City will open the Red Andrews recreation center for up to 125 additional beds. In the event that Red Andrews is opened, Homeless Alliance will staff the shelter.

Less Shelter

Some may recognize that this is significantly less emergency shelter than was part of the City-wide contingency plan for the last number of years.

The prime example is that last year, the City partnered with the Homeless Alliance and Mental Health Association Oklahoma to open and operate a temporary shelter in the empty Willard Elementary School west of downtown.

But, the City decided this year that the Willard shelter was not necessary.

All of the full-time shelters have returned to their regular capacity, which was sharply diminished last winter due to COVID protocols.

Additionally, City Care opened their low-barrier overnight shelter in the Spring, adding 140 new shelter beds to the community.

Perhaps that arithmetic works, but there’s more to the picture than that.

Anecdotally, unsheltered homelessness has risen in the past year, as pandemic difficulties have led to the loss of income and, for many, housing.

In 2021, the City did not perform the annual Point In Time count. The PIT count attempts to count as many people experiencing homelessness in the community on a given day. Without the data from a more recent count, experts can only estimate the current numbers of people without homes.

point in time homeless count
A man named Johnny is being interviewed by Luke Williams, one of the many volunteers who helped with the point in time count, 2020. (Brett Dickerson/Okla City Free Press)

Dan Straughan, Executive Director of the Homeless Alliance, spoke with Free Press in person this week. He estimated that there are approximately 550 people experiencing unsheltered homelessness currently in Oklahoma City.

“It’s probably more,” Straughan added.

With this year’s weather plan only incorporating 100-124 emergency beds, many will ask if this is enough. That’s a question that only time will answer.

Last year on one night, the Willard shelter hosted 276 individuals.

Free Press spoke via phone with Jerrod Shadid, Program Planner for Homeless Services with the City of Oklahoma. Shadid explained the absence of the Willard shelter in this year’s plan.

The lease on the school was a temporary lease. It expired at the end of March.

“Even if we were looking for another site, it probably wouldn’t have been at Willard,” Shadid said.

“With City Care’s 140 beds, 50-75 at Homeless Alliance and 24 at Salvation Army, that’s just about the same amount of people served with our overflow shelter space last winter.”

The hope is currently that additional shelter beyond these overflow beds will not be needed. But, again, without holding a Point In Time count again, we simply don’t know how many people are unsheltered in Oklahoma Currently.

The next Point in Time Count will be held on January 27. Readers interested in volunteering for that count should contact the Homeless Alliance.

Funding

Emergency shelters aren’t free to operate, obviously. You have the costs of food, energy, and staff.

To pay for these emergency services, the City has set aside $1 million dollars of a funding category called ESG/CV. Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG) money is used for a variety of services for people experiencing homelessness. This is money distributed by the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, and administered by the City.

The designation “CV” indicates that it is money that was received as part of the CARES Act distribution.

The $1 million is the same amount set aside for last winter, and that amount was not depleted by the services rendered.

Staffing

A difficulty for the organizations hosting emergency shelter is having appropriate staff on-site overnight when there is an emergency. Organizations have to find people among their staff to pull from other important duties to sit at the shelter site overnight.

Sometimes volunteers can provide this service, but often the experience isn’t what the uninitiated may expect.

It is important to remember that people experiencing homelessness and in need of emergency shelter are generally living lives that are very complex, and often chaotic.

winter shelter
A homeless person sleeps in the Homeless Alliance temporary night shelter Winter 2021. (provided by the OKC Homeless Alliance)

The emotional impact of spending the night in a facility with a large number of desperately impoverished neighbors who have no constant access to medical or mental health care, food, or hygiene needs can be overwhelming.

Volunteers with good emotional management, mature boundaries, and deep compassion for people in duress can be hard to come by. And the staff at these organizations are engaged in important life-saving work. More volunteers are needed, but volunteers should get a good idea of what they might encounter before they fill an emergency overnight shift.

Moving Forward

While role-players in the system are hopeful that the current contingency plan will be successful, they are each ready to return to the table to fine-tune the system, if there are problems.

Dan Straughan said, “This [service providers and the City staff] is a group of people who are very good at working together, and at changing plans on the fly as needed. This is the plan today. If tomorrow we find out extreme weather may sit on Oklahoma City for a week and a half, we’ll reconvene to see what we need to do to prepare.”

As of this printing, a notice has been issued that emergency winter weather shelter will be available at the Homeless Alliance (50+ adults and children, plus kennel space for companion animals) and Salvation Army (24 women and children) will be in effect Saturday night, December 18, 2021.

Homeless Alliance is served by bus routes 008 and 007. Salvation Army is served by those buses as well as route 038.


Last Updated December 16, 2021, 7:43 PM by Brett Dickerson – Editor