A business attorney who has worked in downtown Oklahoma City for over 40 years, Rusty Mulinix has witnessed the city's transformation and he's observed its homeless problem grow with it. Inspired by the efforts of other grassroots community activists, he discovered that the best way to make an impact was to start doing something yourself.
Rusty and a small group of six volunteers meet monthly to help distribute essential items to our growing homeless community. Patti Fields, Stephanie Chapman, Jeremy Hays, Senka Hays, Kayli Smith, Jesse Scott Griffith, and Zac Brown gather and distribute donations and make meals, including bringing a food truck to provide free meals at donation sites.
"I initially had my awareness raised through Patti Field's activities and her work in the homeless communities. She's been doing this for decades," Mulinix said. "Then, when the extreme weather was coming in last year, I talked to some people and said we need to go help these people. I'd see people over there underneath this bridge, then four or five people underneath that bridge, that bridge, and so on. At first, we thought we'd go try to talk him into going to shelters. Well, 99 percent of them aren't interested in going into shelters, they say there's too much drama, too much craziness, and they'd rather avoid it. So I used what I learned from Patti and others to find alternative ways to help keep them safe."
Oklahoma City's homeless problem isn't going away anytime soon.
"In the last year or two, I've noticed the increases," Mulinix said. "As we've gone out, there's just always more and more people. We don't serve the same people every time. You do get the people that you've served many times you've become friends with, but then there's just a whole horde of other people that you think - where did these people come from?
Sometimes they've been transplanted down here for no good reason. We met a lady from Philadelphia and got her bus tickets to go home. Things like that, where they're here, they're in this situation, but they can't do anything about it."
Mulinix hopes to see more efforts on behalf of the city, county, and community leaders to address the issues and find solutions.
“I'm hesitant to criticize the city or the county because they do some things. It's not like they're the enemy,” Rusty said. “I just think they don't know what to do. And while they do a few things, they also do things I think they shouldn't do, like bulldoze these camps. Something needs to be done about that. People put so much work into just having a little space to feel safe and warm. We were passing out food on a particularly cold day a few weeks back. We came upon a man and gave him some food, and he asked if we had a candle. He said he could keep warm inside his tent with that candle. I mean, think about that."
Rusty thinks it's crucial to be understanding of the unique circumstances of our homeless neighbors and to treat them with respect and compassion.
"These are real living, breathing people," Mulinix said. "Many are out there because of drug problems or mental health problems, and there are a lot of them that, just for whatever reason, life has pitched them a bad hand. They're all very easy to talk to, they're intelligent, and they're often very spiritual. And everyone deserves help. My theory is if we can help them for 30 minutes, three days, or whatever it is, if we can give them food, clothes, and a zero-degree sleeping bag that helps them for a month or whatever, then we've accomplished something. And they're always so grateful. You very rarely get anybody that's anything but just totally thankful that you've done something for him. It's very fulfilling. To me, these are people; they deserve care and respect too."
Rusty and his small group distribute clothes, shoes, toiletries, food, and other necessities throughout the year. While the need for essentials like food, toiletries, and other items remain the same throughout the year, other needs change with the seasons.
"During the winter, supplies like tents, zero degree sleeping bags, shoes, socks, clothing, and coats are always needed,” Mulinix said, “In the summer, bottled water, shorts, light clothes, and things like that become very important."
The Oklahoma Tower donated space in the building's basement to Rusty and his group to store donations and supplies until they are ready to be distributed to those in need.
"We usually go on Saturday afternoons. We schedule a day where everyone can get together," Rusty said. "We got a storage room; it's really great. They just offered it, and one of the building owners gave us a nice donation. It's been a godsend because we had to carry the stuff around or have it sitting around our houses, and we try to figure out a way to get it to where we're going to meet, then get it out to people."
Rusty works alongside many other community activists and organizations to serve the community. He said he plans to grow his mission into something more organized and reach more people. He's currently looking into turning his group's grassroots efforts into a small non-profit, allowing him to hire someone to spearhead the logistics of day-to-day communications, donation acquisition, and delivery coordination, among other tasks.
He recently received approval to turn his group’s grassroots efforts into a small non-profit. Establishing the Oklahoma Pheonix Project will allow Rusty to hire someone to spearhead the logistics of day-to-day communications, donation acquisition, and delivery coordination, among other tasks,
"I would love to be able to do more and more often," Mulinix told me. "There's a lot of restaurants and organizations that will give you food. I've spoken with several already. But someone has to coordinate that and get supplies. I can foresee getting a full-time person to do that for us. This would allow us to go out more often and help more people, rather than just giving them food and seeing them in three weeks. It would be great to do something more substantial. I don't have any grandiose plans, but we're all working together to come up with something that makes an impact."
To learn more about Rusty's mission visit oklahomaphoenixproject.org.