Kim Woods stood in a gas station parking lot across from a Greyhound bus terminal Thursday afternoon, looking for a group of men she knew probably weren’t there.
The intersection of Martin Luther King and Reno avenues, near the Interstate 35-Interstate 44 interchange, was once home to a bustling homeless camp. But Woods, deputy director of the Homeless Alliance, said the nonprofit group has helped most of the men who used to stay in the camp find housing.
Until recently, many of those men might have had a harder time finding housing. But a new program seeks to connect chronically homeless people in Oklahoma City with shelters and social services.
So when a group of social workers and volunteers went to the intersection Thursday as part of Oklahoma City’s annual point-in-time homeless census, they didn’t find anyone there to count.
“It’s a good problem to have,” Woods said.
The program, called the 100,000 Homes Campaign, establishes so-called wet shelters, which allow people with substance abuse problems to be given a place to stay that doesn’t require them to abstain from drugs or alcohol.
People staying in the wet shelters are discouraged from using drugs or alcohol but it isn’t required. Asking those people to stop drinking or using drugs often isn’t realistic, Woods said.
“It’s hard to get sober when you’re living under a bridge,” she said.
The program also connects those people with case managers and social support personnel who work with them on those issues. In some cases, people staying in wet shelters have begun attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Some have been able to get jobs, she said.
“Some are more successful than others,” she said.
More than 40 government agencies and faith-based groups have signed on to the campaign. Although the program is only a year old, Woods said it’s already having an impact.
The Homeless Alliance and the Coalition to End Poverty, along with other groups, conducted the annual count of homeless individuals and families Thursday. Data from the survey will be sent to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
1,362 counted in 2013
During the survey, social workers asked homeless people basic demographic information like age, race and veteran status, as well as questions about drug and alcohol use, where they sleep at night and how long they’ve been homeless.
The 2013 point-in-time survey showed Oklahoma City was home to 1,362 homeless people. Nearly 300 of those people were unsheltered homeless, meaning they slept on the street at night.
Although data from Thursday’s report won’t be available for a few weeks, Woods said she hopes it will show a decline in the city’s unsheltered homeless population. But it’s possible the survey results could show the opposite, Woods said.
The group recently began using an electronic program to count people at the Homeless Alliance’s day shelter, meaning the group gets a more accurate tally. Volunteer groups have also done a better job of blanketing the city looking for homeless people, she said, so it’s possible the census figures could show an increase, even if the unsheltered homeless population actually dropped.
Although the campaign may have put a dent in the city’s homeless population, it hasn’t eliminated the problem entirely. Woods’ team of social workers and volunteers met with a group of about eight homeless people near a camp under the Interstate 235 overpass on NE 23.
When they took the survey, most people in the group said they’d slept outdoors the night before. Some had been homeless for a few months, and others for longer. One man, who declined to give his name, said he’d been homeless since 2000 and had been sleeping on the street for the past six years.
Social workers asked the group survey questions while volunteers passed out food, water and winter clothes.
Russell Kugler, a man who stayed in the camp, said he doesn’t like sleeping in shelters. He doesn’t like being told to get up and out of the shelter early in the morning, he said. It’s generally easier to sleep outdoors, he said.
After he finished the survey, Kugler asked social workers for information about where he could find a job. A worker gave him a number where he could reach Goodwill Industries’ job resources line.