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Hundreds of city's homeless find themselves trapped in motel cycle

Dan Straughan, Homeless Alliance director 

Dan Straughan, Homeless Alliance director 

On nights when he can afford it, Darrell Wordlow sleeps in motel rooms. When his money runs out, he tries to find room at a homeless shelter. If there's none to be found, he walks the streets.

Unable to work because of stomach and back issues, Wordlow, 55, gets a Social Security check each month. With that money, he's able to keep himself in motel rooms and off the streets for most of the month.

Wordlow, of Oklahoma City, knows his Social Security check would be enough to cover the rent for an apartment. But instead, it goes toward motel rooms, giving him a place to stay for a night or a week, but leaving him unable to get into permanent housing.

"I'm just spinning my wheels," Wordlow said. "I'm not getting anywhere."

Each night, hundreds of Oklahoma City residents without permanent housing check into motels to get off the street. Although the motel rooms are a good short-term option, those people often find themselves trapped in a situation in which hotel bills eat up what little income they have, leaving them unable to come up with a security deposit and first month's rent for an apartment, said Dan Straughan, executive director of the Homeless Alliance.

What's more, Straughan said, rules governing how federal money is spent often leave agencies and nonprofits unable to help.

The Homeless Alliance and many other nonprofits use funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to help homeless people get into permanent housing. That money comes with certain restrictions, including one that requires agencies and nonprofits to use the money in accordance with the department's definition of homelessness.

That definition includes a broad range of categories, including people sleeping outdoors or in emergency shelters. It also includes people who are staying in hotel rooms funded by an agency, nonprofit advocacy group or other organization, such as a church. But it doesn't include people who, like Wordlow, are staying in hotel rooms and paying for them themselves.

That rule means agencies and nonprofits can't use that money to help those people get into permanent housing, Straughan said. In some cases, advocates advise people to move from motel rooms to homeless shelters, where they'll be considered homeless under HUD guidelines, and will be eligible for help. But emergency shelter beds are in short supply in Oklahoma City, meaning that isn't always an option.

It's an especially difficult situation for fathers with children, Straughan said, because only one homeless shelter in the city — the Salvation Army — will allow fathers with children to stay together. If the shelter is full, as it often is, many of those fathers have no other option besides staying in motels.

Scott Hudman, a spokesman for the department, said agency leaders wrote that rule with the intention of focusing resources on people whose situations are most dire. While he acknowledged people who stay in hotels for lack of permanent housing are in an unstable situation, the fact that they have roofs over their heads means they aren't as vulnerable as people sleeping outside.

“Almost homeless is not the same as homeless," Hudman said.

But Wordlow said it's frustrating that there's no help available for people in his situation. He feels as though the department is demanding that he hit rock bottom before it can do anything for him. That's not a helpful solution, he said. When people get "all the way down in the mud," he said, some of them never find their way back.

“A lot of people never recover," Wordlow said. "When they go down that far, they never get out.”

Silas Allen

Silas Allen is a news reporter for The Oklahoman. He is a Missouri native and a 2008 graduate of the University of Missouri. Read more ›