Sleet and snow crackled on the roof of Jackson Poadger's tent as he and three fellow homeless people warmed themselves Thursday with a small camping stove.
Poadger and his friends were riding out the storm in a wooded area near downtown Oklahoma City. They've been living there for the past 11/2 weeks.
Oklahoma City has about a half dozen homeless shelters, ranging from ones with more than 400 beds to smaller, specialized ones with closer to a dozen, said Dan Straughan, executive director of the Homeless Alliance.
There are as many as 300 “unsheltered” people in Oklahoma City, Straughan said. Some of them choose not to go to shelters and end up under bridges or in tents.
The reasons people give for avoiding the shelters vary. Some homeless people may have mental health or substance abuse issues, while others may have dogs, which aren't allowed in the shelters.
Poadger, 54, said that if he and his friends went to a nearby homeless shelter, they would risk losing their meager belongings to thieves.
“We'd lose everything we own,” said Poadger as he clutched his small puppy. “It's getting to be really bad, the homeless preying on the homeless.”
Jack Fontenot, 43, who says he's been homeless now for two years, sat next to Poadger in the tent and said the state Health Department posted notices earlier that day telling them to vacate the area.
“Right now it's cold and the weather's bad, and they expect us to move in this,” Fontenot said. “That's just not right.”
Jonathan Roberts, executive director of Be the Change, an Oklahoma City nonprofit that provides assistance to the homeless, dropped off blankets with the group and tried to convince them to come back to the Oklahoma City Day Shelter.
Roberts and his organization are part of the Homeless Alliance, a group of dozens of organizations collectively housed in the Westtown Homeless Resources Campus that offer support in a variety of ways to Oklahoma City's homeless.
Roberts and his staff are actively trying to move people like Poadger and Fontenot into shelters during the storm. He said that he understands the police and the Health Department have a job to do, but compares the process of emptying homeless encampments to the game “whack-a-mole.”
“It doesn't solve the problem of homelessness,” Roberts said. “They just move from one place to another.”
Haley Phelps, manager of the Oklahoma City Day Shelter, said a recent survey of the roughly 225 to 250 people who use the shelter daily found that 53 percent of them do not stay in an overnight shelter.
Straughan said that even though shelters expand the number of people they will take in and relax their occupancy requirements during inclement weather, it isn't uncommon to see at least one or two freezing deaths during the winter months.