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Volunteers count Oklahoma City's homeless

The annual tally of Oklahoma City's homeless population Thursday is inexact. Still, it provides a snap shot of the population so groups can better target resources to the needs of the homeless.
BY JULIANA KEEPING Published: January 27, 2012

The man who friends call “Uncle Billy” lives in a tent in the woods near Interstate 40 and S Eastern Avenue. He's been homeless in Oklahoma City for almost 17 years.

Volunteers tried to reach people like Billy Ball, 58, Thursday in an annual tally of Oklahoma City's homeless population. The census of homeless individuals is organized by the Homeless Alliance, the Coalition for the Needy and the city of Oklahoma City.

The one-day, point-in-time count is required every two years by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It's used as part of an application for about $2.5 million in federal funds used for street outreach and housing. Doing the count every year helps address the ongoing needs of the homeless community, said Dan Straughan, executive director of the Homeless Alliance.

Volunteers visited encampments to conduct the count Thursday. Shelters and hot meal programs counted the number of individuals they served.

The challenge comes in counting homeless individuals like Ball in 606-square-mile city.

“It's much harder to find people sleeping in the streets, or in camps,” organizer Jill Spangler told a group of nonprofit workers and volunteers who met Thursday morning at the WestTown Resource Center and Day Shelter at NW 3 and Virginia. Groups then departed to the city's underpasses and camps where homeless are known to live.

Mayor Billy

Ball — who also goes by Mayor Billy — is well known among area homeless.

Ball and others who emerged from under the highway and behind buildings near the interstate received food, blankets and clothing during the count and survey in the parking lot of a shuttered restaurant.

Questionnaires require the age, race and gender of the individuals counted as well as answers to more complicated questions — like what caused the individual to be homeless.

Ball said his health keeps him out of work. He doesn't have a high school diploma, though he's had different labor jobs throughout the years. And, he said, “I drink. I ain't gonna lie about that.”

He prefers living in a tent in the woods to shelters, where, he said, “They steal from you.” He said he hands out food he gets from outreach efforts like Thursday's to the more reclusive homeless individuals around him.

“I'm homeless but I help the homeless, too,” he said.

An inexact process

The 2011 count totaled 1,221 homeless individuals living in shelters, transitional housing or without shelter, up almost 13 percent from the 2010 count of 1,081 individuals. Straughan said it's estimated the population of homeless is up to five times higher than that.

Straughan admits the process is inexact.

Not counted by volunteers are those staying temporarily with friends and family, the “couch homeless,” Straughan said. Oklahoma Public Schools reported 1,800 homeless students last year, he said.

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