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Annual survey designed to identify needs of homeless community

Photo courtesy The Homeless Alliance
Surveying Oklahoma City's homeless population.
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- At 3:30 a.m. Thursday, more than 80 volunteers bundled up and ventured out into the dark places of Oklahoma City that most citizens never see.

They walked into drainage ditches, under overpasses and along dark alleyways to find members of Oklahoma City’s homeless population to gather census data in the hopes of understanding and addressing the causes and effects of the city’s homeless population.

The Homeless Alliance, City of Oklahoma City and Coalition to End Poverty’s annual homeless survey, called the Point in Time Count and Outreach, is a required survey that cities that receive funding from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development are required to do at least every two years.

In Oklahoma City, the Point in Time Count and Outreach is done every year. And the results are somewhat grim, said Dan Straughan, executive director of the Homeless Alliance.

“Last year, we saw a big increase in unsheltered homeless, and we expect to see that again this year,” Straughan said. “We are also seeing a big increase in family homelessness.”

THE COUNT

At 4 a.m., the volunteer teams were out in the streets talking with the unsheltered homeless and later on Thursday, will visit shelters, hot meal programs and encampments to count and survey people experiencing homelessness. Small items like hygiene kits, coats and gloves were available for survey participants who needed them.

“We go out at 4 a.m., because people who are homeless are like people who aren’t – you can catch them where they live at 4 a.m.,” said Straughan. “We spend a month or so ahead of time to identify where people are staying. During the day, we will go to the shelters and meal sites and to the public spaces like the bus station and libraries. This will go on throughout the evening, and we get a lot of good data from this census.”

The survey helps local service agencies identify trends, plan services and housing programs, and ultimately better help people end their homelessness, Straughan said. 

“This is a particularly difficult population to count accurately,” he said. “Things like the weather on the day of the count and improved counting strategies can cause the numbers to fluctuate. That’s why the result from one year to the next may not tell you much, but conducting the survey every year and looking at trends over time helps us identify where we need more resources.”

Results of the 2018 count will be compiled and analyzed and will be released later this year.

HOMELESSNESS IN OKC

The 2017 survey counted 1,368 people experiencing homelessness in Oklahoma City. Experts estimate a community’s annual population of people experiencing homelessness is about four or five times larger than its one-night findings, which means up to 6,840 people were likely experiencing homelessness in Oklahoma City last year.

Among the fastest growing population of homeless are families with children, Straughan said, due to the rise in cost of affordable affordable housing.

“Oklahoma City has the third steepest rise in the cost of rent in the entire nation,” Straughan said. “The big driver in family homelessness is the availability of affordable housing. Even in Oklahoma City, where the cost of living is very affordable, it’s not for families who are working full-time minimum wage jobs. It’s worse for families living on social security or social security disability. Families with children are the most sensitive to those rent increases.”

The local median rent grew at a faster rate than almost every non-coastal American city, outpacing income growth, according to the Oklahoma City Housing Authority’s most recent affordable housing strategy report.

“Unfortunately, homelessness isn’t really going to get any better until the community works to develop more affordable housing and invests more in mental health and substance abuse treatment,” said Straughan.

Other populations, like the elderly, are rare to see on the streets.

“The good news is our community is getting better at housing people,” said Jerod Shadid, an associate planner in the City Planning Department’s community development division. “Thanks to years of collaboration, local organizations are doing a better job of coordinating services. It makes it easier to get people to the services they need more quickly.”

Most of the larger service agencies in Oklahoma City are participating in a coordinated intake system that standardizes assessment tools and eligibility criteria, Shadid added. The system makes it easier to track resources as they become available.

Straughan said he expected to see a continued rise in the unsheltered population, or those who do not stay in homeless shelters throughout the city.

“Shelters have changed over the past 50 years,” he said. “The traditional homeless shelter where you get a cot and a meal are changing and becoming more like transitional housing. Because of that, people have to join a program and work that program. That means we don’t have enough shelter beds for the homeless.”

The Salvation Army of Central Oklahoma and Grace Rescue Mission are the only “traditional” homeless shelters in the city, he added.

(Photo courtesy The Homeless Alliance)

But services to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place are beyond what local service groups are able to provide, and significant increases in local housing costs over the last decade have added pressure for people with financial difficulties.

The Point in Time survey does not attempt to count people who are temporarily homeless and staying with a friend, relative or acquaintance, sometimes referred to as “couch homeless.”

The number of couch homeless is uncertain, but the Oklahoma City Public School District had 5,475 homeless children enrolled in 2016-17 school year, 80 percent of whom were couch homeless, according to The Homeless Alliance.

“We expect to have preliminary numbers next month,” said Straughan. “But we couldn’t do it without the volunteers. In less than 24 hours, 80 volunteers signed up to go out at 3:30 in the morning to do this.

That’s amazing. That speaks to the community’s willingness to learn more and do more to address homelessness.”

 The Homeless Alliance, a 501(c) 3 not-for- profit organization, helps coordinate and improve services for the homeless population of Oklahoma City. For more information about the homeless or how to help, call(405) 415-8410 or visit homelessalliance.org.

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