The Point-in-Time Count report on homelessness in Oklahoma City released Thursday showed the total number of homeless people is down, but the homeless living outdoors is up drastically.
This year’s count was conducted in the very early hours of January 25 by volunteers coordinated by City of Oklahoma City staff in the Community Development Division of the Planning Department.
Those counted as homeless are living in shelters, transitional housing, or outdoors.
That total number, 1,183 men, women, and children, was down 13 percent from 2017 suggesting that processes for moving people into transitional or permanent housing are working.
National standards for estimating the number of homeless is four to five times the one-night count, which would come to an estimate of between 4,732 to 5,915.
The most troubling news from the single-day report was that those who are unsheltered, defined as those who are living outdoors in some way, has increased by 47 percent since 2017.
The unsheltered homeless are who the public is most likely to notice since they are living in tents or under bridges outdoors and typically panhandle for money.
Dan Straughan, executive director of the Oklahoma City Homeless Alliance and Jerod Shadid, senior planner in the Community Development Division of the Planning Department for the City of Oklahoma City sat down with Free Press to talk about the dynamics revealed in the report.
“People are more vulnerable when they live outdoors,” said Straughan. “They are susceptible to the weather, violence, and insect-borne diseases. So we are concerned.”
But, why has there been a spike in the number of homeless living outdoors?
“Some of Oklahoma City’s homeless shelters have changed the way they do business,” said Straughan.
“In the old days, the homeless shelter was a place you went and got a hot meal. You got a place to sleep. You got breakfast. And that was pretty much it.”
“Some of the shelters in Oklahoma City have moved away from that model to a much more program-intensive model,” Straughan said. “You can’t just go in and stay the night. You have to agree to enter a recovery program.”
And so, more people are being pushed out onto the street overnight, resulting in camps along roadsides and empty lots. It’s the most visible and troubling aspect of homelessness the public sees.
Need more shelters
Straughan said the Westown Homeless Resource Campus of the Homeless Alliance at N. Virginia and NW 3rd Street has a lowest-barrier shelter but is only equipped for daytime use. They close at 4 p.m. every day.
To show the need, Straughan said the facility was designed for about 150, but typically serves around 325 each day.
“In all of 2017, we served 6,063 unique individuals,” said Straughan.
“Our strategic direction both as an agency and as a community is really working,” he said. “Permanent housing … is really working to reduce the overall number of homeless in Oklahoma City.”
“Tactically, what’s going to happen over the next 12 months is we have to find a way to address this unsheltered homeless problem. And, I don’t know what the answer to that is yet, but I know we have to address it.”
“Somebody has got to run a shelter,” he said. “Ideally, you are only doing it for a year or two.”
Need new facility
Jerod Shadid with the City of Oklahoma City said that of the $4 million his division administers of The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants, $3 million is for transitional or permanent housing assistance.
He said that leaves only $1 million for helping with shelters and programs for the unsheltered.
“Barring getting our local shelters to change their policies, you have to find a new facility or build one. You have to find an operator. And you have to find money,” said Shadid.
“Honestly, a smaller new facility would be ideal. But, those three things are bumps in the road. We do have a lot of people on board wanting to address the problem. The problem is, they’re not people with money.”