Experts say the number of people experiencing homelessness for the first time, especially those without some sort of shelter, has likely increased because of the coronavirus pandemic.
And, they warn, an increase is expected to be reflected in Tulsa’s annual survey of the homeless set to begin this week.
And while the number of people experiencing homelessness are expected to rise because of the pandemic and accompanying economic downturn, it is also having an effect on how the count is conducted in the state.
“I think everyone is anticipating the count is going to be higher,” said Tyler Parette, outreach and engagement coordinator for Housing Solutions in Tulsa. “That’s not a surprise to anyone.”
Though both Tulsa and Oklahoma City will conduct its annual point in time count for those in homeless shelters on Thursday, for the first time in 17 years, Oklahoma City will not be conducting a count of unsheltered homeless people.
Meanwhile, organizations in Tulsa plan to begin a count of unsheltered homeless on Friday, but unlike other years, the count will extend over several days — Saturday, Sunday and possibly Monday, Parette said.
“This data is really important because it helps us to effectively allocate the resources we have and also understand the scope of homelessness in the community,” Parette said. “To really address the issue we have to understand it and the PIT count goes a long way toward helping our community to understand what’s going on.”
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which requires sheltered homeless point-in-time counts to be conducted annually and unsheltered counts at least every two years, considered Tulsa one of 80 communities nationwide in which the count would be extremely important, Parette said, and the agency offered a lot of latitude for the counts, traditionally done over a 12-hour period, to be conducted.
“We’re still doing the sheltered count very similar to how we’ve done it in years past, except not utilizing as many volunteers, mostly leaning on the resources of staff who are already interacting with the population in emergency shelters to kind of keep that bubble small and try to not inject or potentially not expose anyone who is not traditionally engaged with that population,” Parette said. “We took that philosophy and applied it to the unsheltered count as well. The folks participating in the unsheltered count will be outreach workers who are already interacting with the unsheltered population.”
Because of social distancing requirements, homeless shelters in Oklahoma City and Tulsa have had to cut the number of beds they offer, meaning far more people are likely going unsheltered than in previous years.
“That has by default increased our unsheltered population, because there’s a segment of that population that would have been in emergency shelter that are now out on the street or in encampments around town,” Parette said.
In Oklahoma City, about a third of the city’s homeless shelter beds had to be cut because of social distancing requirements, said Dan Straughan, executive director of the Homeless Alliance of Oklahoma City.
“The problem with that is the shelters didn’t have a lot of space anyway,” Straughan said. “Essentially, through attrition, we lost 300 beds in a 900-bed system.”
However, there are some bright spots to the situation.
While the COVID-19 positivity rate (the percentage of tests that come back positive) among the general population in Oklahoma County is more than 25 percent, among the county’s homeless population, it is only 4.08 percent, Straughan said.
Extensive COVID-19 testing and tracing has been done on the county’s homeless population, he said, with around 5,000 tests being performed since early September.
Straughan credits a highly organized effort among the city’s homeless shelters and outreach organizations to implement strict COVID-19 protocols in shelters beginning in March, such as mask, social distancing and hand sanitizing requirements, the low positivity rate.
“We’re religious about enforcing that,” Straughan said.
In addition, an isolation wing was established at the City Rescue Mission, the city’s largest homeless shelter, for those who test positive or show signs of COVID-19, and, coupled with the mass testing and contact tracing, has been “wildly effective” at helping control the spread among the homeless population, Straughan said.
And while the sheltered count can be done using shelter records, to keep from spreading the disease, the organizers are forgoing an unsheltered count, which usually requires up to 200 volunteers, he said.
“There’s just not a safe way to get that many people together,” Straughan said. “We’re really not recruiting a lot of volunteers to go out to homeless camps and talk to people, not so much to protect the volunteers but to protect the homeless people.”
The downside to all of the protections in place, Straughan said, is the number of people who are without shelter.
“Clearly, there’s more unsheltered homeless in Oklahoma City than there was before the pandemic,” he said.
Mack Haltom, executive director of the Tulsa Day Center, said the limits on the number of people who can be in the shelter, and other shelters, have caused his team to scramble to help find housing for the homeless by reconnecting them with family members, using motel housing as a bridge between the streets and more permanent housing and increasing the organization’s rapid rehousing program.
“We’ve really had to re-strategize how we do things,” Haltom said.
Last year, the organization put 500 people in houses through its rapid rehousing program, he said, and federal pandemic relief funds have helped the organization help those in need.
A federal eviction moratorium, which was recently extended to March 31 by President Joe Biden, has helped keep many in their homes, Haltom said.
“We’ve missed that bullet, I think, as far as more people who may be evicted,” Haltom said. “Right now, Tulsa hasn’t experienced that yet. If that ever takes off, we’ll see a lot of increase on that.”
However, the social distancing protocols in place at the Day Center have forced the organization to prioritize those most in need, he said.
“One thing I hate more than anything else is seeing people outside when in a normal situation they would be inside our building where we can take care of them,” Haltom said. “We’ve had to bring folks in who are the most vulnerable and unfortunately that puts out people who I’m not able to serve right now. That’s in my heart, to help people, and when I can’t it just drives me crazy.”
Parette and Straughan both recommended that those who may be facing homelessness or already homeless call 211, which can help link people to resources and shelter.