By Darla Shelden
City Sentinel Newspaper
OKLAHOMA CITY – According to the latest Point in Time annual report, released by the City of Oklahoma City, the number of Oklahoma City’s homeless people has decreased by nearly 10 percent. However, advocates say the number alone isn’t statistically significant enough to celebrate.
According to the report, which is based on a one-day census that happens each January, there were 1,368 people who were homeless in Oklahoma City, down from 1,511 in 2016.
Nationally, it is estimated that a community’s annual number of people who are experiencing homelessness is four to five times its one night census. The estimate in Oklahoma City is 5,472 to 6,840 people who are homeless annually.
Advocates contend that the “count is complicated”, and while the numbers are helpful to track, they don’t provide the total picture.
“This is a very challenging population to count accurately,” said Jerod Shadid with the community development division of the City of Oklahoma City’s Planning Department. “While a lot of planning and research goes into making sure we get the most complete picture possible, things like the weather on the day of the count and a change in counting strategies can impact the results.”
The Point in Time Count is a one-day census required by the federal government. Although it provides a helpful snapshot of the situation, Shadid says it should not be considered an exclusive measuring tool.
In addition to demographic information, data is collected on special needs, income, veteran status, and numbers of times and length of homelessness.
Along with the overall number being down, the number of people experiencing chronic homelessness was down by 11 percent from 286 in 2016 to 254 in 2017. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, chronic homelessness is defined as someone with a qualifying disability who has been homeless for more than one year or four times during the course of three years where those occasions cumulatively total at least 12 months.
During the past several years, 40 nonprofits, faith-based and government agencies have been working together on a collaborative effort called Journey Home OKC with the goal of housing veterans and people who are chronically homeless. In 2016, the cooperative group of agencies housed 285 veterans and 173 people who were chronically homeless, a sub-population that advocates say is typically more challenging to house.
“Agencies throughout the community have made major strides at housing people and streamlining processes to end homelessness, among families with children, veterans and chronic populations,” said Dan Straughan, executive director of the Homeless Alliance. “The number of people being housed has spiked significantly in the past several years.”
The Homeless Alliance, a 501(c) 3 not-for-profit organization, helps coordinate and improve services for the homeless population of Oklahoma City.
Even though nonprofit and government agencies are housing a growing number of people, Straughan says they are fighting an uphill battle. Increases in cost of rent, decreases in social service budgets and poverty in Oklahoma are having an impact on homelessness.
While Oklahoma City is generally considered to be an affordable housing market, it has experienced a significant increase in housing costs in the past decade.
According to the Oklahoma City Housing Authority’s Affordable Housing Strategy report which was presented at the 2017 Mayor’s Development Roundtable, Oklahoma City experienced some of the fastest growth of all non-coastal cities in median rent, and this growth is outpacing incomes.
“While agencies are working really hard to house people and seeing positive results, the unfortunate thing is homelessness is not really going to get any better until the community works to develop more affordable housing and invests more in mental health and substance abuse treatment,” said Straughan.
Other results found in the 2017 Point in Time Count of Oklahoma City’s homeless include:
• • 147 veterans who are homeless, compared to 157 last year
• • 118 families with children experiencing homelessness, compared to 92 last year
• • 37 percent are female, 63 percent are male
• • 62 percent are white, 27 percent are black, nine percent are Native American
• • 22 percent are under the age of 24, and 64 unaccompanied youth were counted
• • 451 people, 33 percent of the homeless population, report mental illness
• • 547 people, 40 percent of the population, report substance abuse
This survey did not attempt to count people who are considered “couch homeless,” people who are homeless but temporarily staying with a friend, relative or acquaintance. Nationally, those numbers are estimated to be 5-10 times the “countable” homeless population.
The report states that the number of couch homeless in Oklahoma City is uncertain, but the Oklahoma City Public School district had 5,474 homeless children enrolled at the 2016-2017 school year, approximately 80 percent of whom were couch homeless.
The City of Oklahoma City, the Homeless Alliance and the Coalition to End Poverty coordinate the “count” conducted by volunteers and service providers to collect information about the city’s homeless population. Teams visited homeless shelters, hot meal programs and encampments across the city to count and survey people who are homeless.
Communities that receive federal funds from HUD are required to perform a “point-in-time count” of homeless individuals and families once every two years, but Oklahoma City chooses to conduct its count annually.