By Darla Shelden, City Sentinel Reporter —
OKLAHOMA CITY – The temporary Willard Winter Night Shelter, created to fill a gap in shelter beds caused by COVID-19 during the coldest winter months, has reported positive final results. The shelter, operated by the Homeless Alliance and Mental Health Association Oklahoma inside of the former Willard School building served 1,120 unduplicated people.
The Willard School Shelter, located at 1400 NW 3rd Street(3rd St. & McKinley) was opened on January 15, 2021, with funds provided by the Department of Housing and Urban Development through the City of Oklahoma City. With a temporary zoning permit from the City and a short-term lease on the building coming to an end, the shelter closed its doors on April 1.
Of the more than 1,100 people who stayed at the Willard School Shelter, 27 percent reported mental illness, 20 percent physical disabilities, 15 percent three or more co-occurring disabilities, 23 percent were experiencing domestic violence, 32 percent were chronically homeless.
The shelter averaged 144 people each night.
When the shelter opened, the City of Oklahoma City Homeless Services, Homeless Alliance and Mental Health Association estimated a capacity of 150 people.
Weeks after opening, Oklahoma saw some of the coldest temperatures in history. The extreme weather required the organizations to increase staff capacity, add cots and open an additional floor of the building. On its highest capacity night, the shelter served 276 people.
“People would have died that week were it not for this shelter and the homeless outreach staff who worked tirelessly to get people inside,” said Jerod Shadid, program planner for the City of Oklahoma City’s Homeless Services who led the City’s involvement with launching the shelter.
“The shelter served an important role this winter, but none more important than during the February winter storm.”
To help limit the spread of the virus, overnight shelters throughout the community had to decrease the number of beds they typically offer. While allowing for social distancing, the shelters were unable to flex their capacity by adding additional cots in the winter. This decrease in shelter beds is what prompted opening the Willard School Shelter.
With declining COVID-19 cases combined with rising vaccinations and additional safety protocols including UVC lighting, shelters like City Rescue Mission, Grace Rescue Mission, Jesus House and Salvation Army are slowly starting to increase capacity.
City Care opened a new low-barrier night shelter on April 6, adding 128 beds to the community’s overnight shelter efforts. People who were staying at the Willard School have been directed to alternative shelters.
Still, advocates say there are not enough resources to address the issue of homelessness in Oklahoma City.
The 2020 Point in Time Report showed 1,573 “countable” people who were experiencing homelessness in Oklahoma City on the night of the count. Of that number, 54 percent were staying in a shelter, 11 percent in transitional housing, and 35 percent were unsheltered.
“At the time of the count, which was taken before the pandemic, Oklahoma City had 1,573 people experiencing homelessness and around 900 shelter beds,” said Shadid. “COVID reduced those bed numbers by around 30 – 40 percent as shelters made modifications to accommodate CDC distancing guidelines. So, we had to act quickly and find a facility to make up most of that lost capacity and bring it up to code before the worst of the winter temperatures arrived.
“Fortunately, we had great partners in Mental Health Association and the Homeless Alliance to get it up and running and the full support of the Mayor and City Council to grant an emergency permit,” Shadid added.
“That permit saved lives this winter and the Association and the Alliance were able to get it open and staffed with very little time to do so,” he said.
Dan Straughan, executive director of the Homeless Alliance, said, “Even if there were enough beds to meet the needs in our community, there are many reasons people won’t go to a shelter. It can be scary to stay in a congregate environment with other people who are in crisis. Some people may have had a negative experience at a shelter, don’t want to leave their campsite, the shelter doesn’t allow pets — the list goes on.”
Advocates of the shelter say that “even more important than shelters is safe, decent and affordable housing matched with wraparound services in the community.”
“Shelter beds are important to give people a safe place to go in an emergency, but housing paired with life-changing services in the community is the solution to homelessness,” said Greg Shinn, Associate Director with Mental Health Association Oklahoma.
“Oklahoma City, while considered by many as an affordable place to live, lacks enough truly affordable housing units to meet the needs of people below the poverty line,” he continued.
According to the most recent housing needs assessment, taken in 2015, Oklahoma County lacked 4,500 units of affordable housing.
“The good news is thanks to years of collaboration, local organizations are doing a better job of coordinating and housing people, we just need more of it,” said Straughan. “And as a community and state, we also need to get to some of the core issues that lead to people losing their homes in the first place. Access to health care and mental health care, incarceration rates, education, low wages, poverty – all of these things feed into people losing their homes.”
Shinn noted, “More than 300 people staying at the temporary shelter report mental illness. As a society, is that what we want for people? We want homeless shelters and prisons to become de facto mental health care facilities? It’s not okay. More needs to be done.”