By Darla Shelden
City Sentinel Reporter
On Thursday, January 26 the annual “Point in Time” count and survey of individuals and families who are homeless will take place in Oklahoma City and other major metro areas across the nation. The goal is to find out how many people are homeless in these communities and what homelessness looks like.
The City of Oklahoma City, Coalition to End Poverty and the Homeless Alliance are partnering to coordinate volunteers who will visit shelters, hot meal programs and encampments to count the people who are homeless.
Communities that receive federal funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development are required to perform a “point-in-time count” of people who are homeless once every two years, but Oklahoma City chooses to conduct its count annually.
The results of the annual survey allow local agencies to plan their services and housing, by anticipating changing needs in the community and to ultimately, help people end their homelessness.
In 2016, there were a total of 1,511 “countable” people who were homeless in Oklahoma City.
According to the Homeless Alliance, it is estimated that a community’s annual number of homeless is four to five times its one-night census. The resulting estimate means the number of people who were homeless totaled 6,044 to 7,555 people in Oklahoma City last year.
That number represented a sixteen percent increase since 2015.
The increase occurred despite an unprecedented effort by 30 nonprofit, faith-based and government agencies working to end chronic and veteran homelessness.
Between July 2015 and June 2016, the collaborative group of agencies, called Journey Home OKC, (http://homelessalliance.org/?page_id=512 ) housed 285 veterans and 173 people who were chronically homeless. Two sub-populations that advocates say are typically more challenging to house.
“People who are considered chronically homeless – those who have a disability and have been on the street for a long period of time – have historically been the hardest population to house,” said Dan Straughan, executive director of the Homeless Alliance.
“They also tend to utilize the most resources. It’s been more costly to leave them on the street than it is to get them a home and the help they need to address the issues they face.”
While the numbers increased last year, officials say the results would have been a lot worse were it not for the new programs and collaborative efforts to house people.
“Agencies throughout the community have made major strides in housing people and
streamlining processes to end homelessness among families with children, veterans and chronic populations,” said Jerod Shadid with the community development division of the City of Oklahoma City’s Planning Department. “The number of people being housed has increased significantly in the past several years.”
In response to the increase in homelessness Straughan said, “Unfortunately, the inflow of people becoming homeless is faster than the outflow right now for a number of reasons. If these new community collaborations weren’t in place to house people, we’d be seeing even bigger jumps in numbers.”
Factors contributing to this increase include a temporary freeze in Section 8 housing, increases in cost of rent, decreases in social service budgets and poverty in Oklahoma, according to Straughan.
In addition, Straughan expects to see increases this year in the number of families and people who are unsheltered based on preliminary information from outreach teams, his agency and other shelters throughout the community.
“This is a particularly difficult population to count accurately,” said Straughan. “Things like the weather on the day of the count and improved counting strategies can cause the numbers to appear to go up.
“The Point in Time Count is a one-day census required by the federal government, and although it provides a helpful snapshot of the situation, it was never meant to be an exclusive measuring tool,” Straughan added. “Using it to make a comparison from year-to-year can be problematic since so many variables change.”
Kinsey Crocker, Director of Communications for The Homeless Alliance says this survey does not attempt to count “couch homeless,” meaning people who are homeless but temporarily staying with a friend, relative or acquaintance.
The number of couch homeless is uncertain, but the Oklahoma City Public School district had 2,906 homeless children enrolled in March of 2016, 80 percent of whom were couch homeless.
Results of the count will be compiled and analyzed and will be released later this year.
The Homeless Alliance, a 501(c) 3 not-for-profit organization, helps coordinate and improve services for the homeless population of Oklahoma City. For more information, or to volunteer, call 405-415-8410 or visit www.homelessalliance.org.