Exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and a shortage of affordable housing, homelessness has become an even more contentious issue for communities across Oklahoma over the past year.
It’s still unclear how the pandemic affected the population of people experiencing homelessness in Oklahoma, but the problem has become more visible as the number of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness — or sleeping outside — has increased, said Greg Shinn, the chief housing officer for Mental Health Association Oklahoma.
A lack of options for affordable and supportive housing for chronically homeless people and those with disabilities are part of the problem, he said.
“We’re just not keeping pace with the inflow into homelessness, and there’s not enough immediate access to affordable housing options,” Shinn said.
The Frontier found claims percolating on social media ranging from basic misconceptions about how and why people become homeless to reports that cities in other states bus homeless people to Oklahoma.
We spoke with service providers and city officials across the state in order to better understand these issues.
Claim: Homelessness is increasing in Oklahoma.
Source: Multiple claims on social media
Fact check: Mixed.
Over the last decade, the number of people experiencing homelessness in Oklahoma has been declining, but how the coronavirus pandemic has affected those numbers remains unclear because of an absence of up-to-date data.
The state reached a recent peak of just under 4,200 people experiencing homelessness in 2017, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. In early 2020, that number had dropped to about 3,900 people.
But the numbers look different in the state’s urban centers.
In Tulsa, homelessness has steadily increased since 2015 when under 800 people were experiencing homelessness. At the beginning of 2020, over 1,000 people were counted during the city’s point-in-time count, an annual survey of those experiencing homelessness.
In Oklahoma City, the number of people who were homeless was on the decline, hitting a low point of 1,183 in 2018, according to Oklahoma City’s point-in-time count. By early 2020, though, that number was over 1,500 people.
Many service providers did not complete full 2021 counts of homeless populations because of COVID-19 concerns. But the unstable economy, evictions and health complications have had a negative effect on housing stability. And the yearly counts already don’t include people who are couch homeless, meaning they are staying with friends or family but don’t have a home of their own.
The state’s urban centers have higher costs of living and rising rent costs, and working a full-time, minimum-wage job doesn’t mean a person can afford stable housing, Shinn said. Opportunities to make a living wage can be hard to come by for those struggling with mental health issues, addiction or who lack educational opportunities, and populations in the urban areas continue to increase, exacerbating those existing problems.
In both Oklahoma City and Tulsa, new shelters and housing programs are providing space and services to those in need. Federal COVID-19 relief dollars are aiding those efforts, which have historically been underfunded.
Claim: Seventy tons of human waste were removed from a homeless camp in Norman and led to an order to boil water for Norman residents to guard against E.coli contamination.
Source: Sassan Moghadam, one of the founders of the activist group Unite Norman, raised questions on social media about possible water contamination from human waste after the City of Norman cleared an homeless encampment near a creek in May. The city moved to clear the camp the same week it issued a precautionary order for residents in part of the city to boil tap water because of possible E.coli contamination.
Fact check: Mostly false
The city of Norman did clear more than 70 tons of material from the homeless encampment in early May that included human waste as well as discarded clothing and rotting food, but officials say there is no connection between the camp and water samples that tested positive for E.coli.
Geri Wellborn, water treatment manager for Norman, said there is no possibility that E.coli contamination that led to the city’s May boil order came from a homeless camp.
“The answer is just plain, flat no,” she said.
The city’s untreated water supply at Lake Thunderbird is presumed to contain E.coli bacteria from a variety of sources including cattle, horses, pigs, dogs and failing septic systems.
However, the city’s treatment plant disinfects the water with chlorine and ammonia before it reaches consumers. The treatment plant also tests the water to ensure it’s safe to drink, Wellborn said.
Norman issued a precautionary boil order for some parts of the city in May after a few water samples tested positive for E.coli. Wellborn said the city is still unsure what caused the problem, but the E.coli-positive samples were limited to a neighborhood where construction on a new water line was underway, said Skylar McElhaney, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality. The order was lifted after the city flushed the water line and tested to ensure E.coli was no longer present.
In response to The Frontier, Moghadam said in an email he stands by his comments on social media and that he continues to have concerns about the impact of homeless camps on Norman’s water supply.
Claim: Other cities across the country purchase homeless people one-way bus tickets to Oklahoma.
Source: There have been some reports by local and national media about bus ticket programs for the homeless.
Fact check: Mostly false
As reported by The Guardian, homeless shelters and programs in cities around the country do sometimes purchase people experiencing homelessness one-way bus tickets to another city where they may have family or job prospects, though the effectiveness of these programs is questionable.
But service providers in Tulsa and Oklahoma City say the idea that other cities are sending homeless people to Oklahoma in large numbers is a myth. Most of the state’s homeless population comes from within the state. And the small number of people who came from out of state didn’t necessarily arrive through another city’s homeless relocation program.
“This is a frequent rumor that we have to myth bust,” said Becky Gilgo, executive director of Housing Solutions in Tulsa.
About two-thirds of Tulsa’s homeless population became homeless in Tulsa County and most of the other third hail from other parts of the state, according to data gathered by a point-in-time count of unsheltered people, Gilgo said.
Dan Straughan, executive director of Oklahoma City’s Homeless Alliance, said only 2.5 percent to 3 percent of the people his organization surveyed reported having an out-of-state Zip code prior to becoming homeless, and most of those were from neighboring states.
“To me, it feels like it has the flavor of an urban myth. You know, it just keeps coming up, you keep shooting it down,” Straughan said. “It might happen, you know, one-offs here and there. But it’s nobody’s policy.”
Claim: People with mental illness become homeless after receiving mental health treatment at Griffin Memorial Hospital in Norman and the city has a large homeless population because of the hospital.
Source: Several Norman residents told The Frontier that this is something they have always heard.
Fact check: Mostly false
Griffin Memorial Hospital is operated by the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services and has 120 beds to provide inpatient treatment.
Service providers in Norman told The Frontier that people discharged from Griffin do occasionally end up on the street, but it’s the exception rather than the rule and not the primary reason people experience homelessness in the community.
People also sometimes become homeless in Norman after a period of incarceration in the county jail or after leaving one of the other mental health and addiction treatment providers in the area, advocates said.
Out of 1,268 discharges from Griffin in 2020, 18 were discharged to a Cleveland County homeless shelter, according to data provided by the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.
“All would have been linked to follow-up community treatment and support services, including case management and housing assistance,” said Jeff Dismukes, a spokesman for the agency.
In 2019, only nine people went to a homeless shelter out of 1,356 discharges from Griffin.
Norman had a homeless population of 266 in 2020, down from 347 in 2019, according to the city’s point-in-time count.
Most people experience homelessness because they can’t afford or don’t have the resources to get housing, said April Heiple, executive director for the Norman nonprofit Food and Shelter Inc.
“Probably the greatest myth about homelessness is that homelessness is a mental health issue, an addiction issue or a criminal issue,” she said. “Homelessness is an economic issue.”
Claim: Homeless people the City of Norman removed from an encampment in May were offered housing, but most refused and said they wanted to remain on the street.
Source: Various social media posts claimed that unsheltered people in Norman want to remain homeless after city officials reported that some had refused offers of housing.
Fact Check: Mostly false
Out of about 20 people who were living in the encampment in May, all but four now have plans in place to help them obtain housing, which include resources like vouchers for rental assistance, a case manager and other services, said Michelle Evans, homeless program coordinator for the City of Norman.
Of the four people without housing plans in place, only one person has refused offers of help, Evans said.
“We continue to work with him to this day,” she said.
Two of the other four people without housing plans are now in treatment programs and one is incarcerated, she said.
True: A claim that is backed up by factual evidence
Mostly True: A claim that is mostly true but also contains some inaccurate details
Mixed: A claim that contains a combination of accurate and inaccurate information
True but misleading: A claim that is factually true but omits critical details or context
Mostly False: A claim that is mostly false but also contains some accurate details
False: A claim that has no basis in fact