The annual Point-in-Time survey counted people experiencing homeless who were staying in shelters, facilities and on the streets. Photo courtesy of News On 6

As three volunteers approached figures concealed with covers and enclosed in tents and hanging sheets, Noe Rodriguez called out: “Is anybody home? We have blankets.”

The volunteers could smell the smoke coming off of a campfire, and as they grew closer a woman in her 40s came out from her tent to greet them. The woman, who has been homeless for five years, said about seven other people camped nearby.

Rodriguez, homeless outreach and rapid response coordinator for Mental Health Association Oklahoma, asked the woman whether she had any mental health or substance use issues and what community services she would like to be connected with.

She was among the people who were counted as part of Tulsa’s annual “Point In Time” survey, which offers a snapshot of the number of residents who are experiencing homelessness.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires cities across the U.S. to conduct the count if they seek federal funds for community resources to combat homelessness. It also helps the community assess needs and evaluate progress.

The survey in Tulsa County covered a 24-hour period from Thursday afternoon to Friday, with more than 40 volunteers beginning their counts in the evening and early morning.

The Community Service Council coordinates Tulsa’s survey with A Way Home For Tulsa, a collection of more than 20 community agencies that aim to prevent and end homelessness.

Last year’s count found 824 people were staying in shelters, public facilities or on the streets. The Community Service Council will release this year’s results in March.

This year, for the first time, volunteers were able to digitally collect data with iPads, said Rhene Ritter, coordinator of A Way Home for Tulsa.

“We’re already getting data from that,” Ritter said. “Hopefully it will make the process easier.”

On Thursday evening, five teams spanned out across different areas of Tulsa County to count unsheltered people. Rodriguez, who was on the north team, covered the section in and around downtown with two other volunteers.

Other volunteers counted people in shelters, Tulsa’s jail and inpatient treatment facilities.

Though the day was unseasonably warm, temperatures dropped quickly as night approached. With flashlights and care packages that included a blanket, bottled water and snacks, the team set out just before sunset.

Elliott Morris, a behavioral health case manager with Family & Children’s Services, volunteered for Tulsa’s annual count. KASSIE MCCLUNG/The Frontier

Near Riverside Drive, the group looked in parks, near trails, and under bridges and highway overpasses. As the three volunteers pulled up to a park near downtown Tulsa, a sleeping bag, pillow and shopping cart sat beside a restroom suggesting someone had recently been there.

“Maybe that door is open to the men’s bathroom,” Rodriguez said.

“I can call out for him,” said Tony Branscum, a volunteer and masters student at the University of Oklahoma.

Branscum checked the area, but found no one to count. Rodriguez said he would come back the following morning to see if the man, who often stayed near the park, would return.

The group drove near downtown Tulsa where they stopped under a highway underpass and counted two more people: A man in his 40s wearing black coveralls and a beanie, and his fiancé who had a scarf wrapped snuggly around her neck. 

When people didn’t want to answer questions, the group still sent them off with a blanket and snacks. The volunteers had a no-pressure approach. Sometimes, volunteers left a contact card in case people later decided they wanted to be connected to services.

Rodriguez, who does homeless outreach daily, has a relationship with Tulsa’s homeless community that helped him map the more than 30 places he planned to survey, some of which aren’t easy to find. The group looked behind pillars, in fields, wooded trails and in parking garage stairwells.

“We have 30 places we’re going to go to, but I don’t think we’re going to make them all (tonight),” Rodriguez said.

By the end of the night, the group had surveyed for more than four hours and counted dozens of people. Only halfway through the list, the volunteers planned to head out again just before dawn the following morning to finish.

When Rodriguez saw a woman huddled up in a blanket by a church door, one of the last people he approached that night, he stopped his SUV to give her a care package. She declined to conduct a survey, but Rodriguez didn’t mind.

“That’s OK. You don’t have to,” Rodriguez told the woman. “Let me get you a blanket.”

A Way Home for Tulsa

Though the Point- in-Time count doesn’t offer a complete picture of Tulsa’s homeless community, it helps A Way Home for Tulsa coordinate its efforts.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Housing and Homelessness gave A Way Home for Tulsa a 2 percent increase in its annual federal funding to combat homelessness.

The grants award $2.67 million to five nonprofits involved in A Way Home for Tulsa: Tulsa Day Center for the Homeless, Volunteers of America, Community Service Council, Mental Health Association Oklahoma and Youth Services of Tulsa.

The grants will be used to quickly provide housing to people and provide support services, according to a Community Service Council news release.

Greg Shinn, associate director of Mental Health Association Oklahoma, said there are several factors that can cause a person to experience homelessness, including unemployment, disabilities and being a victim of domestic violence. 

“And there are a lot of people in our community that are working and just trying to pay the rent,” Shinn said. “They are very vulnerable.”

Though Tulsa has seen a slight jump in the number of people who are chronically homeless over the last couple of years, the city has increasingly had success in housing veterans.  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.

“We all work really hard at it together, and it’s a coordinated effort,” Shinn said. “But we have some real challenges ahead of us.”

Related reading: 

Chronic homelessness rises, despite success getting people into housing