Editor’s note: The Frontier partnered with Curbside Chronicle to publish a story on the lack of resources for people experiencing homelessness after a hospital stay. The project was funded by a grant from the Oklahoma Media Center and the Inasmuch Foundation. 

I waited in the lobby of Oklahoma City’s only low-barrier night shelter at dusk one evening last September listening to the laughter, music and voices of people who were lined up outside to claim a bed. 

My goal was to talk to staff and people staying at the shelter to better understand how hospitals in Oklahoma City discharge patients experiencing homelessness. A lack of resources means many people are discharged back to the street or to shelters that can’t handle their medical needs. 

The night went by in a flurry as people checked in, went through security and asked for storage and pet boarding. I watched as men with hard hats or briefcases ambled by and was continuously reminded of the fact that homelessness can affect anyone. Targeted, easily accessible resources are vital to helping people get back on their feet, advocates say. 

Shelter staff explained how difficult it is to provide care for people discharged from local hospitals and dropped off unexpectedly.

People were curious why I was at the shelter, and many had stories to share when they heard I was a reporter. I met a man who goes by the name “Reaper” after he collapsed in pain at the night shelter. He agreed to talk with me about his experience with liver disease while homeless.

Talking with Reaper stirred up a mix of emotions for me. I was glad to find someone who had actually experienced the problems I was writing about and was open to talking with me. But he’d been through so much and was inexperienced dealing with reporters, so there was an extra responsibility of making sure he understood what I was doing and that he would have control over his personal story. We talked multiple times to make sure I had the facts correct.

The Frontier’s publishing partner Curbside Chronicle also helped me connect with Howard Holten, a 56-year-old man who had nowhere to go after a hit-and run accident left him hospitalized. I spent hours talking with Holten about the accident and how hard he was working to get his life back together. 

Howard Holten, 56, had nowhere to go after he had major hip surgery following a hit-and-run accident. Holten now stays in Oklahoma County’s only respite center. Photo by Nathan Poppe

Early on in the reporting process, I also engaged with hospitals to learn more about their discharge procedures. Hospital workers told me about the challenges of trying to find safe places for patients experiencing homelessness.

To accurately explain what happened to Reaper and Holten during their hospital stays, I needed to obtain their medical records, which took weeks of paperwork and phone calls. 

One source didn’t have state-issued identification, so we relied on court documents to confirm identities. I eventually received more than 1,600 pages of patient information. 

In total, I interviewed over 30 people for the story. Thanks to grant money provided by the Oklahoma Media Center and the Inasmuch Foundation, we were able to pay the Oklahoma State Department of Health to build a custom dataset to show how many discharges to homelessness from hospitals happen in the state. 

The issues around how hospitals discharge patients experiencing homelessness are complex and don’t have robust solutions in place yet. While writing, I tried to include nuance while also holding institutions accountable and showing the struggles so many individuals experiencing homelessness face. 

The story was possible because of people that were willing to talk about their experiences and what needs to happen in the future to ensure vulnerable communities stay safe. To those who shared, thank you.