About 80 volunteers gathered at the OKC Homeless Alliance West Town facility Thursday morning at NW 4th and Virginia before there was even a glimmer of light on the horizon.
They were preparing to do the annual Point-in-Time count of the homeless in Oklahoma City, a requirement of the Housing and Urban Development department for agencies applying to keep program grants for the neediest people in cities across the U.S.
Volunteers have to get out on the streets and into the camps that early because the homeless typically get up and out looking for food and resources at first light.
Free Press came to the West Town campus several times during the day to talk to volunteers who were coming back in with their reports.
It was all hands on deck for the staff at West Town, too.
This is the key data day of their year, even though they keep data on who they are serving in their various programs throughout the year.
And the count is done at their day shelter.
Dan Straughan, executive director of the Homeless Alliance, had dirt on his pants and shirt, not a usual thing for him since his role is administrative.
He and his team had to crawl through a culvert to get to one camp they were assigned to visit.
Teams are given a map that is compiled just before the event every year by the Oklahoma City Police and different agencies just before the count day.
The count is important, but there is a personal impact when he goes out with teams each year.
“I’m usually wearing a suit and interacting with people in suits to raise money for our work here,” said Straughan.
“But, this is eye-opening to see how some people live in this city. It’s important to me personally. It renews my commitment to this effort. We can do better.”
Straughan was not the only one to use the term “eye-opening” either.
Jordan Hulin, a sociology major at the University of Oklahoma, was about to go back out to do more counting in the middle of the day with fellow student Keaton Hunter and Ranya O’Connor, director of the Curbside Chronicle.
“I’ve been working with the homeless for a while now, but it’s still eye-opening to do this,” Hulin said. “It gives you a different perspective on social issues.”
“What I’ve learned is that everyone is their own person,” said Hulin. “Everyone has their own story.”
Sociology classmate Hunter joined in with her perspective.
“There is a huge stigma toward this population. What I’ve learned is that everyone is a genuine person.”
“You’re more like them than you think.”
Kim Grate and Ashley Marshall had dropped off their early reports to those doing data entry in the conference room, had fresh supplies and pamphlets the volunteers hand out and were walking for the door when we ran to catch up with them
Both seasoned mental health workers with the Mental Health Association of Oklahoma, they take the time off the agency allows them for the count and work during the day when many of the early volunteers have gone on to work.
“We’re doing this as a way of advocating for them,” said Grate. “This is how they are seen by agencies and other organizations that can help.”
The 2017 count at the same time last year revealed a hard count of 1,368.
It is estimated that the actual count of homeless in any given city is four or five times that of a single night.
Using that measure, Oklahoma City may have had between 5,472 and 6,840 homeless.
The official count for this year will come out in the spring around May. You can see past official counts on the Homeless Alliance website.