A woman in her mid-thirties is lugging a backpack as she leaves the Denver House one recent afternoon. She slumps on a bench outside the front door and starts quietly sobbing.
It’s crowded both inside and outside the facility, which sits just south of Tulsa’s downtown and assists adults “experiencing the challenges of homelessness and mental illness.” One of the many patrons outside on the hot summer day offers the woman sympathy but is rebuffed with a loud, stern warning: “Get away from me!”
The needs of those living on Tulsa’s streets are numerous. New numbers released by The Community Service Council of Tulsa show 987 homeless people, an increase of more than 50 people compared to last year. The data was gleaned during a “Point in Time” count of the homeless conducted in January. Figures from that count were released by the CSC on Friday.
The revelations in the new report are not a surprise to people who work with the homeless and mentally ill in Tulsa on a daily basis.
Executive Director of the Tulsa Day Center Mack Haltom said the numbers are up because there are more people without shelter on any given night.
“We are counting better, there is a more coordinated team effort on the 24-hour designated ‘Point in Time Count,’ Haltom said. “But the numbers are also up because the number of homeless people in Tulsa is growing.”
Haltom said that when he began working at the Day Center in 2000, around 60 people would take overnight shelter on mats on the floor of the Day Center. Today that number has skyrocketed. Haltom said that on any given night all overnight shelters, which collectively have 500 beds, are full, and there are simply not enough beds to meet the city’s needs.
Haltom said he has also seen a shift in the demographics of people being served.
“I’m seeing more female clients. When I first started working here almost 20 years ago our night shelter was mainly men,” he said. “Today it is pretty much 50/50. Sometimes we have more females than males”.
Mike Brose, Executive Director of the Mental Health Association of Oklahoma, said data shows the number of people with mental health issues and who are experiencing homelessness has remained steady.
However, he said economic conditions have led to a rise in homelessness.
“It used to be that whatever study you looked at … between 40 and 60 percent of all the homeless population had untreated serious mental illness as a major contributing factor to their homelessness,” Brose said. “But that percentage has dropped. It’s down now to 20 to 30 percent.”
Brose said income disparity plays a role in homelessness as well.
“We have a very much increasing gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots,’ and then you combine that with the price of property (which) continues to go up. It’s a tremendously poverty-driven situation and the diminishing market of affordable housing.”
Experts: City’s high eviction rate plays a role
Tulsa has the 10th highest rate of evictions in the country, Jeff Jaynes, Executive Director of Restore Hope Ministries, said.
Jaynes said he is alarmed by the number of people in the last year who have faced evictions and calls it a crisis. He says, “wage growth has not matched rent growth” Restore Hope Ministries has spent $330,000 dollars in the 2018-2019 fiscal year for rent assistance, up from $200,000 the previous year.
Rhene Ritter is on the Community Service Council leadership team.
“It’s well known that our Oklahoma law is very landlord friendly and not necessarily tenant friendly,” she said.
In her role at the CSC, she is the coordinator for a program called “A Way Home for Tulsa,” a collaborative effort among social service agencies and the city to end homelessness. She says between July 2018 and June 16 of this year the program served 1,916 unique households, 40 percent of which were for rent assistance.
A Way Home for Tulsa is currently working on developing a strategic plan and will provide recommendations and plans for the Tulsa Community to align services around best practices and new strategies that meet the needs of Tulsa’s most vulnerable populations.
One evolving strategy is a new project developed by the Mental Health Association Oklahoma, called, “Adopt a Home”.
Since Jan. 1, there have been six donations each of $5,000 to the program in order to house someone for six months. Brose said during that time period the individual or family being assisted gets “wrap around services” unique to their needs, whether that be help with employment, disability assistance or Section 8 housing vouchers.
Brose foresees civic groups, churches, neighborhood organizations and businesses getting involved, combining donations to raise the five-thousand dollars to adopt a home.
Some leaders want a centralized location for homeless
Brose and Haltom also want to start a conversation that other cities are having about creating a centralized campsite for people experiencing homelessness. Brose said that while some might argue that such a thing is inhumane, he believes it could help provide better outcomes for everyone.
“There will always be people who choose not to come into a shelter and there will always be people who, because of their different behaviors, have been asked to leave the shelter and not been allowed to come back,” he said. “So if people are already doing that, why not create a designated campsite where we can outreach them and they can have some safety and security?
“That gives law enforcement a tool to say you can’t be here, but you can go over to this designated encampment.”
Brose said the campsite could be a mixture of tiny homes and tents. He said there are community and social service agencies could better connect with the homeless and hopefully transfer them out of homelessness and into secure housing.