By Darla Shelden
City Sentinel Reporter
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK – On the night of Oklahoma City’s annual Point in Time Count, more than 1,500 people were experiencing homelessness, according to a report released recently by the City and the Homeless Alliance.
The annual Point in Time Count conducted on January 23, resulted in 1,573 people of the homeless population surveyed – up from 1,273 in 2019.
Communities that receive funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development are required to conduct the survey at least once every two years, although Oklahoma City’s survey is annual.
While the number of people counted on that single night increased, organizers say it does not necessarily mean homelessness increased by that same amount.
“Last year, the community increased its street outreach efforts which has allowed several organizations to engage more with people who are unsheltered,” said Dan Straughan, executive director of the Homeless Alliance.
“As a result, outreach teams have better pinpointed the locations of people and camps and established rapport with people, making counting easier and more organized this year,” Straughan added. “The increase in unsheltered people accounted for more than half of the overall increase, so better counting strategies likely contributed to the increase on some level.”
Jerod Shadid, program planner for the City of Oklahoma City’s Homeless Services, pointed out that although it provides a helpful snapshot of the situation, the Point in Time count should not be considered an exclusive measuring tool.
“This is a particularly difficult population to count accurately,” said Shadid. “Things like the weather on the day of the count and counting strategies can cause the numbers to fluctuate.
“That’s why the result from one year to the next may not tell you much, but conducting the survey every year and looking at trends over time helps us identify where we need to focus our resources,” Shaded said.
The count also found the following details:
- 10 percent of the population are veterans
- 17 percent are members of families with children
- 33 percent are female, 66 percent are male, 1 percent is transgender or nonconforming
- 61 percent are white, 26 percent are black, 8 percent are Native American
- 17 percent are youth age 24 or younger
- 26 percent of the population reports mental illness
- 28 percent are considered “chronically” homeless
- 54 percent were staying in a shelter, 11 percent in transitional housing, 35 percent unsheltered
While these numbers provide good data to track trends over long periods of time, the community has a tool that tracks service use and numbers on a daily basis, Straughan said.
“Last year, 10,171 people were served by programs that record data in the Homeless Management Information System,” he continued.
The 2020 Point in Time count was administered before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Straughn notes that it is too early to determine how the economic impact of the virus will affect the number of people experiencing homelessness.
According to the press release, advocates are concerned that with increased unemployment and some of the highest eviction rates in the country before COVID-19, it could lead to more people losing their homes.
That fear is based in part on housing costs in Oklahoma City, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Two people working full-time on Oklahoma’s minimum wage can’t afford a two-bedroom rental home at fair market value without exceeding the recommended 30 percent of income to be spent on housing, the website states.
The Oklahoma City metro area is the one of the least affordable in the state for a working family.
With increasing attention on the issue of homelessness, last fall the City of Oklahoma City hired an outside consultant to create a strategic plan for ending homelessness. That plan should be released in the coming months.
In December voters passed the MAPS 4 initiative. It includes funding to build affordable housing in the future, as well as funding for other initiatives that could reduce homelessness like jail diversion and mental health facilities.
“Although the number of people counted on the night of Point in Time Count increased this year, the good news is our community is getting better at housing people,” said Shadid. “
Thanks to years of collaboration, local organizations are doing a better job of coordinating services,” Shadid said. “It makes it easier to track resources as they become available and allows the agencies to pool their resources to house clients faster.”
But services to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place are largely beyond what local service groups can provide, and significant increases in local housing costs over the last decade and stagnant wages have added pressure for people with financial difficulties, Shadid contends.
Oklahoma also has some of the highest national rates of mental illness, substance abuse and domestic violence that create added challenges, the press release states.
“The community is working really hard to bring together multiple nonprofits and government agencies to take a team approach to housing people, and it’s working,” said Straughan. “We just need to invest more and address some of the systemic issues that lead to homelessness.”
This survey did not attempt to count people who are staying in hotels, treatment facilities, emergency rooms, jails or people who are considered “couch homeless,” people who are homeless but temporarily staying with a friend, relative or acquaintance.
The number of couch homeless in Oklahoma City is uncertain, but Oklahoma City Public Schools had 2,474 homeless children enrolled at the end of the 2020 school year, the majority of whom were couch homeless, the release adds.