Editors note: This story was updated Friday afternoon with additional comments from Gov. Kevin Stitt.
Citing a desire for smaller government, Gov. Kevin Stitt dissolved a nearly 20-year-old statewide council on homelessness this week, even as the number of unsheltered Oklahomans continues to grow.
At his weekly press conference at the Oklahoma Capitol on Friday, Stitt said he didn’t think the council was “moving the needle on homelessness.” Stitt also rejected the idea of directing other state resources toward building housing to address homelessness and said churches and nonprofits are already meeting some of the demand for services.
“Building housing, giving people free stuff is not the answer,” Stitt said.
Stitt said he did support investing in mental health programs and job training in the state.
“….If you don’t want to get help, there’s not a lot that society can do,” he said.
The Governor’s Interagency Council on Homelessness received no recurring funding from the state and hosted regular meetings to discuss barriers to housing, coordinate grants and provide updates on programs to serve people experiencing homelessness.
The council was in the process of updating the state’s five-year plan to address homelessness, which will likely not be finished, and no other group exists to track homelessness across the state and report numbers to the state and federal governments, said Greg Shinn, associate director of Mental Health Association Oklahoma who served on the council. Some worry there could be impacts to federal funding given to Oklahoma to address homelessness.
While rates of homelessness among some groups, like veterans, have decreased across the state in recent years, the number of people who are unsheltered or experiencing chronic, long-term homelessness has skyrocketed in Oklahoma City and Tulsa since 2017, according to counts of homeless populations across the state.
“There’s just nowhere for people to go,” Shinn said. “My response is that we have not accomplished our task or met our goals yet. We have a long, long way to go.”
The council was created in 2004 through an executive order to promote collaboration between social service providers, state agencies, lawmakers and faith communities and improve access to services and affordable housing. Stitt chose not to renew the order.
Stitt spokeswoman Kate Vesper previously said the governor trusts local efforts and agencies like the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Use Services to continue the work to reduce homelessness.
“Governor Stitt believes in keeping government small and is confident that after nearly 20 years, the Interagency Council on Homelessness has accomplished their task to brainstorm solutions to reduce homelessness in the state,” Vesper said.
Council administrators were told on April 11 the council would be disbanded and sent members a brief letter the next day to cancel future meetings. Council members said they were surprised the group of mostly volunteers would be dissolved.
Without the council, providers said there will likely be disconnected local efforts rather than a comprehensive plan to address homelessness across the state.
“The GICH provided a forum to facilitate connections between and among state agencies and the nonprofit and faith-based agencies doing most of the knee-to-knee work with people experiencing homelessness in our state,” said Dan Straughan, director of the Homeless Alliance in Oklahoma City. “That kind of facilitated connecting and information-sharing was valuable, if hard to quantify.”
Most other states have statewide councils on homelessness. Jeff Olivet, director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, came to Oklahoma last fall and met with Stitt and tribal leaders.
The federal council said in a statement to The Frontier it encourages states to create and continue to operate their own councils.
“The work of ending homelessness is not done until every person has a safe and affordable home,” the federal council said.
-Reese Gorman contributed to this report.