As Oklahoma was rocked by an unseasonably early ice storm at the beginning of the week, the city’s shelter network hurried to develop a plan to offer as much emergency shelter space as possible for people in Oklahoma City who are experiencing homelessness.
In recent years the city-wide winter emergency contingency plan has been robust, offering several hundred emergency beds on nights when the temperature was going to be below 34 degrees. But recent years didn’t face the threat of COVID-19.
UPDATE – 6:30 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 29:
The Homeless Alliance and Salvation Army will be offering emergency shelter tonight, October 29, despite the fact that temperatures will not be as low as the last several nights. Additional shelter is being offered at City Presbyterian Church, 829 NW 13th St. by a partnership between the church and Black Lives Matter OKC.
UPDATE – 10:30 a.m., Thursday, Oct. 29:
Thursday morning the City announced the Red Cross warming center would be open again from 10 a.m. to 6pm. EMBARK is offering free bus and streetcar rides to Cox Convention Center for those in need.
Update – 6:30 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 28
Late in the afternoon, however, a new plan was announced.
The City, claiming that the push from the public to keep the Cox Center open was in response to the lack of power at the Homeless Alliance and Salvation Army, offered the gymnasium at Red Andrews Park as a replacement shelter for the Homeless Alliance guests.
At the time of this writing at 6:30 p.m., Wednesday, the Homeless Alliance was still without electricity while OG&E is trying to remedy the situation.
The Homeless Alliance still plans to keep it’s emergency shelter open for the night.
The Salvation Army has added 80 additional spaces in their lobby and hallway. While this is not COVID-safe, the Salvation Army is responding to a community crisis.
Free Press spoke by phone to Jerrod Shadid, Oklahoma City Homeless Services Program Planner, about this year’s winter shelter contingency plan.
“COVID is the elephant in the room. We can’t provide all those beds. For example, last year we had over 100 beds at the Salvation Army. Sadly, this year it’s only 24, and those are in their storm shelter, which is nice and heated. But they have all their COVID precautions in place in their shelter and can’t squeeze more people into it.
“We weren’t expecting this kind of weather this early. Fortunately, the Homeless Alliance stepped up. This has been talked about in past years as a back-up, but this is the first time they’ve had to open [the Day Shelter overnight].
“We’ve identified an external location for emergency shelter, but it takes time to get these ready,” Shadid said, referencing gas, electricity, and plumbing. “I’m supposed to visit a potential location, an old school, this week with plumbers.”
“This has been an exhausting week. It’s beyond frustrating. It’s just hard to find good options right now that are expedient.”
This year, so far, the contingency shelter plan only provides about 100 appropriate emergency shelter beds. Already one provider, the Homeless Alliance, has exceeded capacity.
On Sunday night as temperatures began to drop, the Day Shelter at the Homeless Alliance’s WestTown campus was outfitted with enough capacity for 65-70 men, women, and children. The Alliance also bought fresh hay for their dog kennels so that people with companion animals would feel welcome. Sunday night the shelter had 31 guests. On Monday night that number jumped to 71 adults, 8 children, and three dogs.
Tuesday afternoon the campus lost power. The unheated shelter still welcomed 102 souls from the deadly weather that night.
Free Press spoke via phone with Dan Straughan, Executive Director of the Homeless Alliance, to see what they’re doing to protect vulnerable community members.
Straughan said, “You know, the biggest thing is we’ve seen a really significant increase in unsheltered homelessness over the last nine months. Those people are in deep trouble and deep need in this type of weather. We, the community, just don’t have the capacity to provide them with the care they need.”
As for the nuts and bolts of running an impromptu overnight shelter, Straughan had this to say. “Every staff member is working on this. Rolling five hour shifts. We need three to five people working in the day shelter for each of those shifts. We have IT people working shifts at the front desk at the day shelter. It’s all hands on deck. Everybody’s pitching in as best they can.”
On Wednesday, the City of Oklahoma City and the American Red Cross opened the Cox Convention Center as a “warming center” from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. They specified that this was not an overnight shelter, leading many to ask why not.
Free Press spoke via phone with Brittney Rochelle of the American Red Cross. When asked why the warming center would not be open overnight, Rochelle replied that the organization will “evaluate based on the need.” Rochelle was unable to tell us how many staff the Red Cross had at the center at the time of the call.
The decision to not keep the center open overnight would seem to leave many of the most vulnerable members of our community in dire circumstances when the cold night comes.
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