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.
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.
The $6 million WestTown Resource Center and Day Shelter opened in August to help provide a one-stop shop for homeless assistance, with a focus on placing homeless families. Efforts there have placed hundreds of families in permanent homes. At the Day Shelter, homeless individuals have a safe, warm, dry place to stay during the day, when overnight shelters are closed.
While organizations like the Homeless Alliance are hoping to see a decrease in the homeless population after this year's count, it's more likely the number will rise, even as more people are being placed.
That has a lot to do with the new facilities. Thursday morning, the day shelter was packed. Individuals there will be counted this year, unlike in 2011, before the 13,000-square foot facility was built. There were also more teams of volunteers counting the homeless Thursday than in 2011.
Straughan expects the final number from Thursday's count in a few weeks, he said.
Falling through cracks
Based on past survey data, about half of the homeless individuals reported mental illness, substance abuse or both problems, Straughan said. It's typical for one problem to feed into another until the end result is homelessness.
“Somewhere in there, you're going to fall through the cracks,” he said.
Behind mental illness and substance abuse, domestic violence and lack of education are common issues that contribute to homelessness in Oklahoma City, he said.
All sorts of things contribute to life lived on the streets, said Jonathan Roberts, executive director of nonprofit Be The Change, which coordinates street outreach efforts. Roberts knows most individuals living near Interstate 40 and S Eastern Avenue by name.
Convictions for crimes such as sex offenses and drugs make it harder for people to find somewhere to live or get a job. Homeless individuals Roberts encounters are often running — from the law, from their wife, from all kinds of things, he said.
The man friends call Big Carl emerged from his home under the highway to participate in the count, and gather food and a blanket Thursday.
Carl Dilbeck, a Vietnam War veteran, said he's homeless because he wants to be left alone.
“I just got tired of people,” he said. Tears rolled down his cheeks when asked about his service. He said he hates the government for sending him halfway across the world at age 17, where people wanted to kill him. He wants nothing to do with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“I ain't got no use for the U.S. government, but America's my home,” he said. “I'd die for this place.”
Sick of lifestyle
Ball said he does want help. He's sick of living outdoors.
“I'm tired of being out here,” he said.
Straughan said individuals who cross the bridge from homeless to housed need to want to take that step. And they need the resources to help.
“We're going to continue to ask every day — let me help,” he said.