Despite the best efforts of government and private aid agencies, there are people in Oklahoma City and everywhere else who fall through every crack until nothing is left but jail, the emergency room and the streets.
But those agencies are making an effort locally to implement a national program that not only helps the city's most vulnerable residents, but also could have a significant impact on the blow that homelessness has on city finances.
The Homeless Alliance, federal Housing and Urban Development Department, Oklahoma City Housing Authority and other groups have started to implement the national 100,000 Homes campaign here, which aims to put homeless people in permanent homes as a vehicle to get them more help and keep them out of hospitals and jails.
“These people have a whole constellation of problems,” Dan Straughan, executive director of the Homeless Alliance, said of the chronically homeless. “The idea is to get them in housing, and then fix the problems that are causing them to be unsheltered people.”
People are defined by aid groups as chronically homeless if they have been on the streets for more than a year or at least four times in three years. There are about 230 such people in Oklahoma City, according to the Homeless Alliance.
Homelessness costs the city about $28 million per year, according to the city's homelessness study two years ago.
The 100,000 Homes campaign uses the principles of Housing First, the program that gets the homeless into a permanent home before meeting any other need. Officials have found that the chronically homeless matched with a permanent home usually stay there, are more receptive to efforts to provide them with other help and spend far less time in ambulances and police cars.
The city's homelessness study highlighted the case of one of Oklahoma City's chronically homeless men, Floyd Crawford. Crawford cost the city about $160,000 in 2010, but could have cost a tenth of that if he was successfully integrated into a Housing First program.
“You can completely leave aside the moral argument of doing the right thing for these really sick people and just look at it as a pure business proposition,” Straughan explained. “Cost-avoidance is one way of making money, and we're going to avoid significant costs.”
The 100,000 Homes effort involves matching available housing with the chronically homeless people. For example, some military veterans or HIV positive people are eligible for housing with some agencies, and 100,000 Homes involves a concerted effort to find out as much as possible about a person in case there is essentially already a bed waiting for them somewhere.
In Oklahoma City, that starts with a vulnerability survey, and then Homeless Alliance and other groups try to match a homeless person with a program that can serve them.
The Oklahoma City Housing Authority has a two-pronged effort to help. One program, run by a nonprofit set up by the authority, looks to build or renovate housing for the chronically homeless, and a Section Eight housing voucher program can provide the funding for living expenses.
“We're willing to stand up and say we'll have the (housing) unit, and we'll have the voucher,” said Mark Gillett, the authority's executive director.
The short-term goal is to have at least 14 chronically homeless people headed for permanent housing by Feb. 14 — Valentine's Day. The long-term goal is to get as close to eliminating chronic homelessness in the city as possible.
The bottom line is that everyone has a bigger opportunity to be successful if they have a place to live, said Donna Wickes, the federal Housing and Urban Development Department's director of community planning and development in Oklahoma City.
The challenge is to create enough awareness in the community to sustain momentum and collaboration.
“We have to have affordable housing for every level of income in the state,” Wickes said. “That may mean zero income.”
The idea is to get them in housing, and then fix the problems that are causing them to be unsheltered people.”
Executive director of the Homeless Alliance