Oklahoma City development leads to homeless migration
Oklahoma City development leads to homeless migration
Jul. 30, 2018
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — "Is anybody home?"
Sgt. Felix Valadez wiggles the poles of a tent, waiting for a sign someone is inside.
When one tent is empty, he walks 10 feet to the next.
"Police department, let me talk to you for a second."
Muffled voices come from inside and eventually the zipper opens. A man emerges and has a brief conversation with Valadez about what he's doing there, assuring Valadez they'll clean up the trash, asking if the officer knows he has a new girlfriend.
The man replies with "yes sir" and "no sir" as Valadez tells him the area, behind a steel beam storage building in downtown Oklahoma City, is not meant for sleeping. When the conversation ends, the man climbs back into his tent.
Valadez walks to his cruiser and drives toward the road he came in on, off to the next spot he knows is a frequent camping site for members of Oklahoma City's homeless population.
"We usually tell people to keep it small, keep it clean and keep it hidden and you'll have a better chance of not running in to us again," Valadez said.
Valadez is one of two officers that work on the Oklahoma City Police Department's Homeless Outreach Team, which rather than charging the homeless with petty crimes like public intoxication or trespassing, seeks to help connect them with resources.
The hope is the program, now in its fourth year, will be more effective in the long-term reduction of homelessness, Valadez said. But, in the last two years, complaints about the homeless to the city's Action Center have skyrocketed, from 36 in all of 2016 to 155 in just the first six months of this year, the Oklahoman reported.
Homeless advocates attribute the surge in such complaints, in part, to the ongoing revival of the city's core. For years, many of the city's homeless could find shelter in any number of abandoned downtown buildings.
"But now those buildings are getting torn down and redone," Valadez said. "So those people just migrate."
Much of that migration appears to be westward, said Dan Straughan, director of the Homeless Alliance.
Corey Russell, 41, had been homeless for more than two years when he was able to find housing through the Homeless Alliance a few months ago. Construction, combined with an increased police presence, is forcing many to move closer to a cluster of homeless shelters and resource centers around the Metro Park neighborhood, he said.
"They have to go somewhere," Russell said.
But that's led to clashes with area residents and businesses, some of whom already had been complaining for years about the homeless problem. Many of the recent homeless complaints to the city's Action Center come from businesses in the area.
Straughan acknowledged that homeless have become more visible in areas west of downtown.
"There is more foot traffic and your chances of running into a person experiencing homelessness is greater," Straughan said. "And it can feel like 'Oh my gosh, there's a lot of homeless people in Oklahoma City,' but the numbers are actually going down."
In fact, during the last decade the number of homeless has fluctuated between a low of 1,081 in 2010 and a high of 1,511 in 2016, according to the city's annual homeless surveys. In 2018, the city recorded 1,183 homeless people.
The 2018 survey also recorded a 47 percent increase in unsheltered homeless, or those who stay in public or private places not meant for sleeping at night.
Meg Salyer, councilwoman for Ward 6, which encompasses most of downtown, said she hears the complaints and is working with area businesses on finding solutions. Some have hired additional security to deal with unruly individuals.
"The message of what can actually help make a difference is hard," Salyer said. "How do we protect their rights to run a safe and clean and welcoming business at the same time protecting the rights of citizens less fortunate or choosing a different path? It's an extremely complicated issue."
A lack of available shelters and affordable housing also play a role in the large number of homeless complaints, advocates said.
More than 100 government, faith-based and nonprofit agencies for the homeless operate in Oklahoma City. But there's a lack of "low-barrier" overnight shelters that don't require things like sobriety or a photo I.D., Straughan said.
The shortage is understandable, he said, noting that it's often hard to find locations and funding for such shelters and that they typically draw concerns about public safety from nearby residents.
Some homeless may be banned from shelters because they have a pet or have been convicted of a felony or sex offense. Others may have a girlfriend or boyfriend from whom they don't want to be separated in gender-segregated shelters.
The city also has a dearth of low-cost housing. The city recently dedicated roughly $10 million for affordable housing, which Straughan said should help those on the brink of homelessness.
Agencies use technology, including databases, visitor logs and other measures to try to accurately track the living patterns of the city's homeless, in an effort to provide and coordinate services more effectively.
The key to shrinking the homeless population is finding the money needed to pay for such services and affordable housing.
For Russell, he's been able to stay sober and stay in housing. He said it's difficult, but his goal is to become a chef and he wants to do whatever he can to make that happen.
"It was scary to transition into housing. I didn't want to stay in my room because I had always been outside," Russell said. "I'm still in transition. But I'm working on it. I have to take baby steps. Eventually it will all come together."
In the meantime, Valadez will continue reaching out to the homeless community, bringing blankets and food, giving rides when needed and helping to connect resources to those who want them.
"Most of the time, people don't want help, but a lot of times we'll get a certain few who do," Valadez said. "It is what it is."
Information from: The Oklahoman, http://www.newsok.com