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
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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.
PHOTO BY JIM BECKEL, THE OKLAHOMAN  JIM BECKEL - THE OKLAHOMAN
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

Panhandling Concerns Grow

Kathy Ford-Wallace, vice president of operations for Downtown Oklahoma City Inc., said her office is fielding more calls about aggressive panhandling and concerns about a more obvious street population. The company is the marketing and information arm of the downtown business district.

Downtown business owners were given a presentation recently on how to handle aggressive panhandling.

"There are definitely concerns," she said. "We just want the property owners to know when and what steps to take if there is an issue."

In 2008, Oklahoma City police responded to about 1,200 aggressive panhandling calls. Last year, they responded to about 1,500.

Panhandling is legal in Oklahoma City unless the person is coercing or using fear to solicit money. It's illegal to panhandle within 20 feet of some businesses, cash machines and after dark in public places.

So far this year, police have responded to 965 aggressive panhandling calls. While many are downtown, most are scattered throughout the city.

Straughan is quick to note not all panhandlers are homeless and not all homeless are panhandlers.

He estimates about half of the homeless population in the city has substance abuse problems, mental illness or both.

"Pretty consistently about half have no significant barriers to housing other than economic ones," he said. "Medical expenses, car broke down, those kinds of things."

Most lived in Oklahoma City when they became homeless and some 30 percent are chronically homeless like Johnson.

"You gotta talk the talk down here ... but you also have to listen."

Some of Johnson's friends are quick to admit they will ask for money from strangers. But Johnson gets some work dusting bottles at a liquor store near downtown.

Becky Pittman, who's helped run the store for the 11 years it's been open, said she does what she can to help the regular customers who call the area around the shop home.

"You gotta talk the talk down here," said Pittman. "But you also have to listen."

Pittman said she doesn't pass judgment on anyone who comes in the busy store. During the late morning hours, the door hardly closes as customer after customer comes in for a half-pint bottle of whiskey or vodka.

Pittman, a trained mental health technician, doesn't skimp on the advice. She kicks customers out who can't walk a straight line, tells them if the weather is going to change and doles out the occasional compliments.

"A lot of the homeless down here really want to work, but they can't find anything. I never take for granted that anyone could be going through what they are."

Even a friend of Johnson's, a 40-year-old woman who goes by Melinda, has managed to get off the streets. But she hasn't found work.

She frequently comes back to an area downtown to find her friends in the places she left them.

"Most everyone down here I know is hurting way down deep inside or they wouldn't be here," she said. "It's the real world for us, but at the same time it's not."

Johnson adds that while many feel at home, life on the streets is far from safe. She doesn't take antidepressant medications she's been prescribed. She says they make it difficult to keep alert and make her vulnerable.

Friends die on the streets, she said. Many from cirrhosis of the liver, some from the winter cold. Others for not being constantly aware of the movements around them.

After shedding a few tears and then composing herself, Johnson picks up her bag and says goodbye, falling in with a few other friends she'll likely camp with on the streets after their evening meal.

Know it: Homeless