Oklahoma City's homeless population is on the rise, report finds
Despite efforts to find housing for every homeless veteran and chronically homeless person in the city, Oklahoma City's homeless population has climbed over the past year, according to a report released Wednesday.
The city's homeless population climbed by about 16 percent since last year, according to the city's annual Point in Time report. That increase came despite an initiative that advocates say has placed more than 500 homeless people into housing since the beginning of 2015.
Homeless advocates, volunteers and others tallied 1,511 homeless people in the city's annual census — a 16.2 percent increase over last year's total. Advocates estimate the community's homeless population for the entire year is between four and five times the total found in the one-night census. That estimate would place the city's actual homeless population between 6,044 and 7,555.
"That's disheartening, because we've been so successful in the initiatives we've had to get homeless people back into housing," said Dan Straughan, executive director of the nonprofit Homeless Alliance.
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That overall increase included a 25 percent increase in the number of homeless veterans and a 34 percent increase in chronically homeless — the two categories where a task force of public agencies, nonprofits and others has focused its efforts over the past two years.
That initiative, called Journey Home OKC, had sought to house every homeless veteran by the end of 2015 and every chronically homeless person by the end of 2016. Between January 2015 and March 2016, the coalition housed 219 homeless veterans and 195 chronically homeless people.
By the end of last year, the coalition of more than 40 business, nonprofits and other groups missed its self-imposed deadline to house every homeless veteran. Straughan said the group is still pursuing both goals. But given the setback Wednesday's report represents, he said he wasn't optimistic.
"If I win the Powerball, we'll probably get there," he said.
Ironically, the city's process for finding homeless people and getting them into housing is as efficient and effective as it's ever been, Straughan said. Recent economic conditions have simply pushed people into homelessness more quickly than agencies and advocates are able to respond.
Cutbacks to state-funded mental health and substance abuse services have left some people without ways to find needed treatment, he said.
Some homeless people found themselves on the street after a statewide freeze on Section 8 vouchers went into effect in June. That freeze likely pushed some working poor people into homelessness, Straughan said, and it left advocates with fewer resources for finding housing.
To make matters worse, the city's homeless shelters are full, leaving homeless people with fewer options for places to go, he said.
Jerod Shadid, associate planner with the Oklahoma City Planning Department's community development division, said the problem is not just one of homelessness, but also one of affordable housing overall.
Oklahoma City's cost of living is fairly low compared to other cities across the country, Shadid said, but poor residents are still priced out of housing. As ripple effects of the oil and gas industry's downturn have spread to other industries, more and more residents are finding themselves jobless and, in some cases, homeless, he said.
Despite the spike in the city's homeless population, Journey Home OKC has helped hundreds of residents, including Willard Payne, of Oklahoma City.
Payne, 61, said he became homeless five years ago after he lost his job with a trucking company. A little over a year after he lost his job, a man showed up at his house saying that he'd bought the property from a foreclosure sale, and gave Payne a week to leave.
So Payne, a U.S. Army veteran, slept in his truck or stayed with relatives for the next four years until last September, when he moved into the City Rescue Mission. From there, he moved into WestTown Apartments, a housing complex at the Homeless Alliance's WestTown Resource Center.
Along with housing, Payne receives counseling on finding a job. He hopes to go back to work soon, he said. In the meantime, he knows he has a place to sleep at night.
Building on success
Although Wednesday's report is discouraging, Straughan said he thinks the city is doing all that it can to address its homelessness problem.
With more funding for mental health, substance abuse and housing programs, he thinks the coalition could rebuild its momentum toward moving the city's homeless people into housing.
"We're on the right track. We know what works," Straughan said. "It's just a matter of having a little more resources."