A survey found 383 chronically homeless people in Oklahoma City this week, 153 more than were found in a similar canvass last year.
The chronically homeless are among a larger population of homeless, unsheltered people. Last year, this population numbered 1,300 people.
This year's comparable number has not been released. This doesn't include “couch homeless,” people who stay temporarily with friends or family members; that number is estimated to be five to 10 times the “countable” homeless population.
More than 100 volunteers conducted the annual “Point in Time” survey. Of the chronically homeless, 159 people were identified as medically vulnerable because of substance abuse, mental illness, limited mobility and other chronic diseases. Seventy are veterans. Those considered chronically homeless are people who have been homeless for at least a year or four times during the past three years.
Oklahoma City is participating in the 100,000 Homes Campaign, a nationwide initiative seeking to permanently house 100,000 of the country's most vulnerable homeless people. Information from the survey will be used in conjunction with that effort.
Survey findings were released Friday at the United Way of Central Oklahoma headquarters. The Homeless Alliance, which is leading the 100,000 Homes initiative in Oklahoma City, is a United Way Partner Agency.
Homes before readiness
The 100,000 Homes Campaign uses a model in which groups work together to place medically vulnerable people in housing first, before trying to address their other issues. This is the opposite of common practice in which certain criteria, such as sobriety, must be met before housing will be provided.
“It is unreasonable for us as a community to expect a 20-year chronic alcoholic to get sober while he's living under a bridge,” said Dan Straughan, executive director of The Homeless Alliance.
The local campaign has committed to finding permanent housing for 2.5 percent of the city's vulnerable homeless each month, which amounts to seven Oklahoma City people monthly.
Faces of homelessness
“It's about Anthony,” Straughan said.
Anthony represents the city's medically vulnerable and chronic homeless population, Straughan explained. Anthony is a frequent guest at the WestTown Homeless Resource Center. He lives on the porch of a burned-out house and, after at least one stroke, suffers from severely limited mobility, speech and bodily control.
It takes Anthony the better part of an hour just to stop shivering from his short, labored walk to the day shelter, Straughan said.
“Anthony has been on the streets of our city for at least a decade, near as we can tell, and he's likely to die there if we don't do something about it,” Straughan said. Others photographed and registered during the survey had been chronically homeless as long as 30 years.
Like many medically vulnerable homeless, Straughan said, Anthony is a regular visitor to emergency rooms due to falls and injuries. Straughan said the state could save millions of dollars by placing people like Anthony in homes instead of absorbing the cost of treating them over and over and then putting them back on the street.
According to a 2010 Cost of Homelessness study, Oklahoma City spends about $28 million each year on homelessness through shelters, social services, emergency room visits and jail. Other states using the 100,000 Homes model have seen drastic reductions in their costs of homelessness: New York saw a 70 percent reduction, Maine saw a 66 percent reduction and Massachusetts saw a $10,000 per person reduction per year.
“When you stop and think about it, when there's a business case to do something and there's a moral case to do something, then there's really no excuse for not doing it,” Straughan said.
The campaign's local volunteers went out in small groups to canvass the city's many homeless camps on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, waking people between 4 and 6 a.m., when they're likely still to be in their camps.
“It was freezing, and going out there that early in the dark, it can be a little frightening,” said DaNisha Blackmon, 23, a master's candidate in social work at University of Oklahoma who volunteered for the campaign. “A lot of the people out there, they're probably more scared of us than we are of them. Nobody cussed us out, nobody was rude. Even the people that were a little upset about being woken up that early, they warmed up usually.”
To literally warm the homeless people being surveyed, Diane Pierce and Stacia Gillet, both of Oklahoma City, recently spent a total of about 575 hours knitting 230 stocking hats which were given to the homeless people.
The canvassers photographed the homeless, many wearing their new hats. They were also given McDonald's gift cards and bus passes.
To meet the housing needs of the 100,000 Homes Campaign, the HUD VA Supports Housing (VASH) program will provide housing for the veterans, the Oklahoma City Housing Authority pledged to provide Section 8 housing vouchers, and other programs such as Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS (HOPA) have promised help.
All told, about 40 local organizations are supporting the campaign, Straughan said.
But these groups are also asking support from the community in the form of cash and household items to go to the campaign's beneficiaries, the homeless who qualify for housing. It costs about $1,000 to move one person into housing, said Bob Ross, president and CEO of Inasmuch Foundation which has supported The Homeless Alliance since its conception.
He issued a call to action for the community, saying the campaign has a public fundraising goal of $7,000 per month to cover these move-in costs.
“We're asking everyone to step up, to rise up with us and as a whole community support this campaign,” Ross aid. “I can't think of anything more important than this.”
For more information, go to www.100kHomesOKC.org.