Outreach teams search streets, camps to count city's homeless
Most nights, Cotton Russell sleeps on a mat in a concrete crevice high up on the underside of a highway overpass, not far from downtown Oklahoma City.
The space is long and wide enough for a man to stretch out comfortably. Just a few inches above the spot where Russell lays his head, a steel crossbeam is lined with Styrofoam soda cups, water bottles and a purple stuffed gorilla.
Tractor-trailers rumble across the bridge all night long, but they don't bother him much. He has a pair of earplugs to block out the noise and a pile of blankets for when it gets cold. Russell, 56, has been homeless for decades, but he's only lived in Oklahoma City for about the past five months. He comes through the city once every few years, usually staying for a month or two before moving on.
"I come and go," he said. "I'll be here one day and gone the next, and I won't come back for another two or three years."
There are others there with him under the bridge, and they look out for each other, Russell said. There's a woman he calls Cali — she's from California — and a man everyone calls the Mayor, who sleeps down on the ground under the overpass because he suffers from seizures. Another man, a U.S. Air Force veteran, hopes to move into housing soon, Russell said.
The half-dozen or so people under the bridge were among thousands interviewed by teams of outreach workers and volunteers who scoured the streets before dawn Thursday, when temperatures hovered just above freezing, tallying up the city's homeless population. That effort was a part of the city's Point-in-Time count, an annual census of those living in shelters and on the street on a single night.
The volunteers went through homeless encampments across the city collecting demographic data, as well as information about factors that drove people into homelessness and time spent homeless. Meanwhile, other workers administered the same survey at the Homeless Alliance's day shelter and several other locations across the city.
Oklahoma City and other cities nationwide conduct the census on a chilly morning each January with the idea that most people who would otherwise be sleeping on the street will instead go to a shelter, where they're easier to count. Outreach teams set out before dawn in the hopes of finding people in encampments before they leave for the day.
Not everyone was happy to see them. As volunteers picked their way through encampments, calling out to anyone who was there, several people groaned quietly before going back to sleep. One woman, lying under a pile of blankets in a grassy lot in northwest Oklahoma City, woke up when volunteers came by, rubbed her eyes and asked them what they were doing up so early.
In a brushy strip of land along a highway embankment, an outreach team picked its way through a row of tents, looking for anything that stirred. Amid the brush were a bicycle, pieces of office furniture and tangled bits of clothing. The air smelled like campfire smoke, but when volunteers called into the tents, no one answered.
As the workers tramped back through the brush, they came upon a man standing in front of a tent, trying to get a campfire started. After volunteer Andru Dallaly explained who they were, the man agreed to take the survey. For the next few minutes, he answered the team's questions while he poked at the fire with a stick.
Last year, outreach teams counted 1,368 homeless people in the city on Jan. 26, down from 1,511 during the previous year's count. Advocates estimate the city's homeless population for the entire year is between four and five times the number tallied in the single-day count. That estimate would place last year's total population somewhere between 5,472 and 6,840 for the year.
Although the results of Thursday's survey won't be available for months, advocates expect this year's census to show an increase over last year's tally, especially among families with children, based on preliminary information from outreach teams, the Homeless Alliance and the city's other shelters.
If that expectation plays out, it will represent a continuation of a yearslong trend. Last year's survey showed a 10 percent decline in homelessness overall, but a 28 percent increase in the number of homeless families with children. That uptick was a part of a broader trend across the state: Oklahoma had a 23.9 percent increase in homeless families with children last year, according to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report released in December.
Dan Straughan, executive director of the Homeless Alliance, said that upward trend in homelessness among families is driven by a lack of affordable rental housing in Oklahoma City. Working poor parents are often living on the brink of homelessness, he said. If one parent loses a job, the family might not be able to make rent. Or if the family is evicted from one apartment, they often can't come up with enough money to cover the security deposit and first month's rent for another apartment.
“It is all about the cost of rent in Oklahoma City and the lack of truly affordable, accessible housing," Straughan said. "That, more than anything else, drives family homelessness.”
Although that trend is worrisome, Straughan said he's always encouraged to see the communities homeless people form among themselves. During a visit to a homeless encampment Thursday morning, Straughan and his team met a man living in a tent who told them exactly which trails to take through the camp and who they would find at the end of them.
Those relationships aren't so different from the ones anyone else forms, Straughan said — homeless people look out for each other and try to help meet each other's needs, the same way people in any other community would.
"A big part of this day, for me anyway, is a reminder that it's just people," Straughan said. "They're our neighbors, and we have a responsibility to care for them.”