Noe Rodriguez travels throughout Tulsa on a daily basis to do outreach with homeless people to get them the help they need and into housing. KASSIE MCCLUNG/The Frontier

He stood on a staircase at the rear of a building in downtown Tulsa with a bottle of water and a tin of canned meat at his feet.

A case manager supervisor with Mental Health Association Oklahoma approached and offered him a cold bottle of water. The interaction between the men would be the fifth one since they met weeks ago.

“I already have one.” the man said of the water.

“This one’s cold,” the case manager, Noe Rodriguez said.

After exchanging small talk, Rodriguez asked the man, who is homeless, whether he wanted to get into housing.

The middle-aged man reluctantly said he did. Rodriguez then ask whether he wanted to go look at some apartments later that day.

“You don’t have to say yes or no,” Rodriguez said. “Just look at them.”

The man, who wouldn’t give his name, agreed, and Rodriguez moved on, promising to come back later.

Tulsa’s most recent homeless population count found 824 people were staying in emergency shelters, public facilities or on the street.

Of those people, 131 were found to be chronically homeless — up 11 percent from last year, despite increasing success getting people into housing.

Since 2015, Tulsa’s chronic homeless population has increased by 47 percent. A person is considered chronically homeless when he or she has some kind of disabling condition and has been continuously homeless for a year or more or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years that total one year.

Despite the growth in that population, almost $300,000 has been poured into the community by local non-profit agencies to prevent homelessness, according to the Community Service Council. And at the same time, 587 veterans and 176 chronically homeless people have been housed since 2015. 

Survey responses for how long a person has been homeless. Data from A Way Home for Tulsa Point in Time Survey

Patrice Pratt, homelessness and housing division director at the Community Service Council, said more collaboration between local organizations means they’re able to count more people, but advocates are trying to find other reasons behind the uptick in numbers.

“We may be housing more people, but unless we’re doing things upstream, those chronic numbers are going to go up,” Pratt said. “We’re doing a better job counting, but we have to understand what’s causing the inflow, too.”

Heather Hope-Hernandez, a spokeswoman for the Community Service Council, said the general economic state of Oklahoma has an impact on homeless numbers. She pointed to the lack of funding for education and not accepting the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Health Care Act, which hindered people’s access to healthcare.

So there’s a lot of things where if we’re not supporting someone on this end, that can lead to homelessness over here,” she said.

Responses to where people lived before they became homeless. Data from A Way Home for Tulsa Point in Time Survey

Rodriguez guessed the man he spoke with recently in downtown Tulsa was in his mid-50s and likely chronically homeless. Though the man wouldn’t divulge his name, Rodriguez considered the encounter a win.

Unlike the times before, the man agreed to look at housing — apartments overseen by Mental Health Association Oklahoma. It was a big step.

Usually multiple visits take place before homeless people open up to case managers, and sometimes, they never accept help getting into housing. Rodriguez said he often has to gain people’s trust, and many of them have been offered aid before that never panned out.

“This segment of our population often deals with mental health and/or substance abuse issues and therefore represents the hardest group to place in stable housing,” said Mike Brose, CEO, Mental Health Association Oklahoma. “Accordingly, it also costs the most for society to support this segment with services in the interim, which is why the members of AWH4T have focused so intently on eliminating long-term homelessness.”

A shelter of a person who is homeless near north Tulsa. KASSIE MCCLUNG/The Frontier

Since 2015, the 23 agencies that make up A Way Home for Tulsa have been a part of a community-wide move to end chronic and veteran homelessness, called Built for Zero.

“While the (point-in-time) survey showed an increased number of overall homeless in Tulsa County this year, the increased collaboration between agencies that has been facilitated by the Built for Zero campaign means we have better measurements in place,” said Sandra Lewis, chairperson of AWH4T and executive director of the Tulsa Day Center for the Homeless, in a statement.

This year’s point-in-time count saw a slight increase in the overall number of homeless people by about 1.6 percent from 2016.

Advocates attribute this year’s increase in homelessness in part to the mild winter weather on the day the survey was taken, the state-budget crisis and an improvement in the actual counting practices.

Though the number of people living in shelters decreased by 1.6 percent — from 661 to 650, those living on the streets increased by 16 percent, from 150 to 174.

The survey is conducted annually on the last Thursday of January when groups of service providers and volunteers travel throughout the city counting homeless people living on the streets, in public facilities and in emergency shelters. For the last 12 years, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has required cities to conduct a count to keep federal aid.

The count offers an imperfect snapshot of the number of homeless people living in Tulsa. The homeless population is fluid, and people who are couch surfing or living with family or friends are not included.

For example, advocates say a 20 percent increase of homeless veterans from 2014 to 2015 could be attributed to greater outreach from programs seeking veterans out.

Hope-Hernandez said local organizations are trying to be more proactive and seek causes that can lead to homelessness.

“The question is, can we get to a point, and we hope to get to a point, where we can look at these factors and figure out, OK, if we see these things happening in school let’s get around that and see if we cant help them.”

One of 763

Charley Brewer lived in a tent behind a Phillips 66 gas station in north Tulsa for about three years after he separated from his wife.

“I ended up being able to get me a cot, had about three sleeping bags and six blankets, and I made it through about three winters out there,” Brewer said.

At the end of the day, convenience store workers would give Brewer the leftover food — chicken wings, fish filets and burritos. The 59-year-old grew tired of the fried food after awhile.

Charley Brewer stands in front of his apartment, which he moved into with help from caseworkers from Mental Health Association Oklahoma. KASSIE MCCLUNG/The Frontier

“When I was in my tent, I got started on that vodka. … I lost my youngest brother, had to bury him myself, and my oldest sister,” Brewer said. “My older brother died. Just everything was eating on me, and I started on that vodka.”

Rodriguez and caseworkers did outreach with Brewer for about three months while he was living in the tent before they were able to establish trust and get him healthcare. He is one of 763 formerly homeless people who have been housed since 2015.

A week after Brewer moved into his apartment he was hospitalized and entered long-term care for eight months before he was able to voluntarily leave.

When Brewer returned to his apartment in May 2016, he said he started panhandling because he had no source of income. During that time, he accrued about $1,500 in panhandling tickets and was referred to the Special Services docket, which allows people impacted by mental illness, substance abuse and homelessness who have committed low-level municipal offenses to be paired with a case manager in lieu of serving jail time.

Brewer said he has stopped drinking liquor and now receives Supplemental Security Income benefits and soon, he’ll get Medicaid. And although he still struggles with substance abuse, he is working to get services from a program that offers pro bono counseling services.

“I’ve been here ever since I got out of that nursing home. I gave up that vodka and started drinking beer,” Brewer said. “Can’t give up all my bad habits.”