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An Oklahoma City homeless population explosion downtown?

Some visitors and business owners downtown have reported an explosion in the homeless population there. But the perception could be due to the amounts of construction in the area.
BY VALLERY BROWN Published: October 24, 2010

photo - Edie Johnson is one of  the homeless who stay in the area near Sheridan and Western Avenues. Speaking about her past and family quickly brings her to tears.
Edie Johnson is one of the homeless who stay in the area near Sheridan and Western Avenues. Speaking about her past and family quickly brings her to tears. PHOTO BY JIM BECKEL, THE OKLAHOMAN JIM BECKEL - THE OKLAHOMAN

Edie Johnson's days are measured by place. Her time on the streets is marked by where she is and when.

There is a routine to follow, even though she is homeless.

Waking up around dawn when it's time to leave the shelter or nighttime sleeping spot. Moving somewhere to wait before breakfast. Then finding a place to linger before moving on again.

Those routine movements are interjected by the clamor of downtown Oklahoma City rehabilitation and construction bringing attention to the habits and presence of the homelessness there.

Many spend afternoons panhandling or waiting for someone needing day labor to drive by hiring for work. Still others pass the afternoon and evening traveling to a nearby convenience or liquor store and then back to a place where they won't be bothered while drinking.

Johnson, 48, said she's lived on the streets for years. Most recently she's called downtown parks and areas below Interstate 40 home, camping and occasionally staying in local shelters.

Her street friends call her "Mama." When things get tough, they ask her for advice and a shoulder.

"I tell them to put it all in God's hands and don't think negative," she says while sitting on a curb in a parking lot near California and Western avenues.

Friends wander past waving and sitting with her in the gritty parking lot before picking up and walking south across a torn up road full of construction signs toward the City Rescue Mission.

Recently, the almost nomadic traveling associated with street life has pushed many of the homeless downtown to more visible areas. This has prompted concern from some businesses and questions of whether the population is increasing or if it only appears that way.

A lagging economic indicator

Evidence is mostly anecdotal since numbers of homeless are counted around the beginning of each year, but Homeless Alliance Executive Director Dan Straughan said shelters are staying full and he's getting more calls from residents and business owners near downtown.

"People are reporting to me that our street population downtown has exploded," he said.

It could be possible since homelessness usually follows behind dips in the economy. For that reason it's referred to as a lagging economic indicator.

Some 1,100 homeless live in the streets and shelters of Oklahoma City.

Straughan thinks numbers on the street have probably increased some. But the most likely explanation for why more are noticing people like Johnson is the construction in many areas downtown. The revamping of Film Row, the raising of the Devon tower and various road projects have pushed many transients into more obvious locations.

"We all have a stereotype of a middle-age guy, scruffy, dirty, talking to himself and panhandling. He's a minority. The reality is they are people like you and me who tripped into homelessness."

In an OU baseball cap, jeans and a sweater, Johnson could fit in with the tourists in Bricktown, but she prefers the company of her friends who call the streets home.

The routine feels comfortable on the streets, she said. But she knows her family is ashamed.

After her 5-year-old son's death in 1984 and a string of abusive relationships, Johnson turned to drugs and alcohol and had a falling out with her family.

"I turned to paint, alcohol, anything to numb the pain," she said. "And I don't want them to see me suffer anymore."

Know it: Homeless

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