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Cover: People count

About 250 volunteers combed streets, shelters, libraries, meal sites and helped host a youth event for the city’s annual Point in Time Count of people experiencing homelessness.

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Editor’s note: This article is part of a collaborative project about homelessness in Oklahoma City by The Curbside Chronicle, Oklahoma Gazette and Big If True. This project is funded through a grant by Inasmuch Foundation and Ethics & Excellence in Journalism Foundation facilitated by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University. - INGVARD ASHBY
  • Ingvard Ashby

  • Editor’s note: This article is part of a collaborative project about homelessness in Oklahoma City by The Curbside Chronicle, Oklahoma Gazette and Big If True. This project is funded through a grant by Inasmuch Foundation and Ethics & Excellence in Journalism Foundation facilitated by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University.

When D’Metryus Lacopo, 24, got an apartment with his husband in December, it was a major triumph. Not only would they have a space to make their own, but also they were ending a struggle of sleeping on the streets, in parking garages and in their car.

“As a married couple, it’s really hard to feel married when you’re not allowed to sleep in the same bed or give each other a kiss, and we weren’t allowed to do that at the shelter,” he said. “I’m also transgender, and it makes it really difficult for me to just exist in a space that I don’t know for a fact is completely safe, and while Sisu is really good about making sure that people who come in are respectful of people, you don’t always know exactly who you’re talking to. Everyone you’re interacting with, you’ve met in the last month or so. Feeling comfortable changing, taking a shower, even using the restroom is really difficult.”

Sisu Youth Services is a local nonprofit focusing on providing services and assistance to youth experiencing homelessness. Lacopo said that when he was homeless, he felt there weren’t enough resources for LGBTQ+ youth. He’s currently a student at Rose State College, with the goal of becoming a social worker.

“I was homeless throughout most of my first semester, but when I was in school, I didn’t feel homeless. I felt like a student,” Lacopo said. “It was a way to get away from the fact that you’re sleeping in a car. It was a way to get away from the fact that I didn’t know when I was going to be eating next.”

In the past, Lacopo was counted as homeless during the annual survey, but he was a volunteer this year. He shared his story at an event connected to the city’s 2020 Point in Time Count, which took place all day Jan. 23. 

Before there was any sign of the sun, more than 80 volunteers arrived at Homeless Alliance’s day shelter to help with the count.

By 4 a.m., 16 teams spread across the city to count and survey people of all ages sleeping on the streets. Other volunteers did the same across city shelters, libraries, churches and meal sites throughout the day. In an effort to better count youth experiencing homelessness, almost 40 volunteers also hosted an event where young people could get services, food and incentives to take the survey.

Officials say the 2020 Point in Time Count for people experiencing homelessness was the most organized it has ever been. - NATHAN POPPE / THE CURBSIDE CHRONICLE / PROVIDED
  • Nathan Poppe / The Curbside Chronicle / provided
  • Officials say the 2020 Point in Time Count for people experiencing homelessness was the most organized it has ever been.

The count and survey results, which represent an estimate of the number of residents experiencing homelessness throughout the community, are submitted to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to determine what funding cities will get to address homelessness. This is required at least every other year for cities that receive federal funding for homeless assistance programs.

Last year’s survey identified about 1,300 people on the day of the count, including children, who were experiencing homelessness in Oklahoma City. About 1 in 5 were chronically homeless, a group that is most likely to use emergency rooms, be hospitalized and frequently interact with law enforcement.The count helps provide a snapshot of the scope of homelessness in Oklahoma City but isn’t an exclusive measuring tool. Numbers from the count only represent a portion of the actual homeless population, which is much higher. In fact, 11,278 people received homeless services in the city in 2018, according to the Homeless Management Information System.

Planning the count

Although it’s an estimate that can be affected by factors like the weather, the survey helps identify trends that might be affecting our homeless community.

Jerod Shadid, homeless services program planner for the City of Oklahoma City, said they begin planning and preparing for the count about six months out. Officials start by reviewing a map that shows the location of various camps throughout the city. The map is broken into sections to determine the amount of teams needed in the morning.

This year, Shadid said 250 volunteers showed up throughout the day. For the morning shift, roughly 80 volunteers were split up into 16 teams. Teams going to more secluded locations also have a police officer on the team, but Shadid said they’ve never had any violent or threatening encounters since they started doing the count this way in 2012.

“We work closely with all of our outreach providers to build out the teams,” Shadid said. “Every team we have, we put an outreach provider on. We try to put a VA provider on each team as well.”

Before the Point in Time Count, officials also make sure the survey is easy and efficient. Volunteers attended a mandatory training session the day before the count.

Beyond asking people experiencing homelessness what factors contributed to their situation and the length of time they have been homeless, the survey also asks about things like substance abuse, physical health, mental health and domestic violence.

“Some questions ask for very personal information, so you want to make the question as non-threatening as possible,” Shadid said.

Despite only being required to count people experiencing homelessness every other year, Shadid said they do it annually and go above and beyond to create better outcomes and strengthen their own data trends.

“I’d like to think that we possibly have the most organized count, at least in the state,” he said. “If we have to do something just to get the bare information, we want to put our time into something that’s going to be useful to us too. We go well beyond what we’re required to collect just to get the information that allows us to see where we’re having successes and where we need to focus more resources.”

Dennis Wren, a man who slept under a bridge the night before the count, said it’s a misconception that people without homes are criminals. - PHILLIP DANNER
  • Phillip Danner
  • Dennis Wren, a man who slept under a bridge the night before the count, said it’s a misconception that people without homes are criminals.

Counting youth

Last year, 7 percent of those surveyed were homeless youth, who are 25 years old or younger and not accompanied by a parent or guardian. The study identified 85 homeless youth in all, but service providers said that figure represents just a fraction of the total group, which is notoriously undercounted.

Over the years, service providers were frustrated by a pattern of finding homeless youth camps only to have them vanish on the day of the Point in Time Count. Youth avoid the survey out of fear that they’ll be arrested, returned to homes that might have been abusive, placed in foster care or other concerns.

“They have a tendency to want to hide from service providers because they don’t have the same autonomy as an adult, so they are a little hesitant that they’re going to be returned to a situation they don’t want to be in, that they’re going to be turned in, and they’re also just more hesitant of service providers in general,” said Jamie Caves, Sisu executive director.

An estimated 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ+, and many have faced rejection by their families.

“Oftentimes, they’re scared of DHS,” Caves said. “They’re scared of being placed in another home that is not affirming, so that’s a concern.”

This year, to address the historically low estimate, service providers experimented with a new event for youth without a home: a welcoming environment where youth could take the survey while also getting access to a number of vital resources. Sisu organized the event, and nine nonprofits and agencies provided services.

The event provided youth with a warm meal, backpacks filled with food, cold-weather necessities like hand warmers and an array of services, including HIV testing, therapy and assistance filling out housing applications with Oklahoma Housing Finance Agency.

In addition to youth counted throughout the day, Caves said 40 youth participated in the event, which she expects to continue and potentially expand with a second location next year.

Service providers like Pivot director of emergency services Lindsay Cates believe the event could be a route to building trust with youth experiencing homelessness.

More than 80 people volunteered during the morning count, which began at 4 a.m. - NATHAN POPPE / THE CURBSIDE CHRONICLE / PROVIDED
  • Nathan Poppe / The Curbside Chronicle / provided
  • More than 80 people volunteered during the morning count, which began at 4 a.m.

“My hope is that the more volunteers we have, the more our community starts to actually look at that issue, things could change,” Cates said. “A big thing is a living wage. ... We have a low cost of living in Oklahoma, but it’s really not because wages have not increased. We’re not setting up youth for success.”

Despite Oklahoma’s low cost of living, minimum hourly wage in the state has remained $7.25 since 2008. According to data from Oklahoma Housing Finance Agency, in 2019, it took a $14.92 hourly wage to afford an average one-bedroom apartment in the city. This means a minimum-wage worker would have to work more than 80 hours a week to afford a one-bedroom apartment.

Heather Johnson, Sisu’s board president, previously served as the homeless liaison for Mid-Del School District, where she was struck by the number of students struggling with homelessness. She said some of Sisu’s clients became homeless after aging out of the foster care system, and others escaped homes where they faced abuse and neglect.

“I very much believe the earlier we intervene, the better, and if we intervene now as youth, they will not be cyclically homeless, they will not be chronically homeless and they will not be in need of systems of care for the rest of their life,” Johnson said.

Falisha Baxter, 24, grew up with chaos in foster care, moving constantly before she aged out of the system. She has been homeless for the past three years and camps in a wooded area with her boyfriend. At the event, she received clothes and hand warmers, which she said can be a lifesaver.

“With resources like this, it helps a lot because … it literally makes people think that there’s still hope, that not everyone’s given up on us,” Baxter said. “There are still people who want to help and opportunities to turn our life around, and the most important thing: It gives us the opportunity to look forward for tomorrow.”

Andru Dallaly, a program manager for homeless youth services at the Department of Mental Health, said the youth who attended were grateful to receive things like new clothes. But despite the event’s success, he was reminded that ultimately, there just aren’t enough resources to help the city’s homeless youth, especially when it comes to shelters.

“All the youth that we have here who are homeless, we don’t even have enough shelter beds to give to them, so we have no choice but to send them wherever they were last night, which could be bridges and camp sites and behind buildings,” Dallaly said. “I have to field these calls of people needing shelter in this age group, and I can’t place them anywhere and it breaks my heart.”

The count took place Jan. 23, with a total of 250 volunteers throughout the day and across the city. - PHILLIP DANNER
  • Phillip Danner
  • The count took place Jan. 23, with a total of 250 volunteers throughout the day and across the city.

On the streets

Volunteers for the survey came from the nonprofit, private and public sectors and said they wanted to help address homelessness and learn more about the issue. Oklahoma County commissioner Carrie Blumert was one of a few elected officials who participated in the morning count.

“It was this weird dichotomy where when you’re out there and looking for people, you want to find people to talk to you, but in another sense, I wish that we wouldn’t have found anyone because that would mean that our area didn’t have anyone living outside,” she said. “My communications director came with me, and I think she was nervous at first. But when we finished up, she goes, ‘I want to do that again. I want to do that next year.’”

Being her first time participating, Blumert said she felt a responsibility to get involved and meet people who are affected by her decisions that might not typically interact with her otherwise. She said she plans to volunteer for the count again and promote it, which she hopes will encourage more people to do the same.

“One man that I interviewed had just gotten out of prison and was literally sleeping under a bridge. His name was Elvis, and he just stayed curled up in his sleeping bag and talked to us,” she said. “I think that every elected official should have to go through this because it really, really puts you in contact with people whose lives are affected by the decisions you make. I will probably never forget Elvis.”

The 2020 count was the fourth time State Rep. Cyndi Munson volunteered for the morning shift. She said since the count happens a few weeks before the legislative session begins, it’s a “grounding practice” that fuels her to advocate for those who don’t have access to many basic necessities.

“I don’t think anyone who leaves this experience looks at the city the same,” she said. “You can’t look at anyone or our city the same because now you know, you’re more knowledgeable, you had firsthand experience having a conversation through those surveys. It should change our mindset to then ultimately advocate for better outcomes and keep those in power accountable to make sure we’re not just thinking of those who can call us and visit us but those who are just trying to survive and thrive in their everyday life. We have to be more concerned about the services they need.”

Volunteers also surveyed people at city shelters, libraries, churches and meal sites throughout the day. Results from the count are expected around June. - NATHAN POPPE  / THE CURBSIDE CHRONICLE / PROVIDED
  • Nathan Poppe / The Curbside Chronicle / provided
  • Volunteers also surveyed people at city shelters, libraries, churches and meal sites throughout the day. Results from the count are expected around June.

Oklahoma Gazette tagged along with Team 2 led by Sonrisa Nowicki, a case manager at The Homeless Alliance. From 4 a.m. to roughly 7:30 a.m., the team visited several encampments and underpasses, counting and surveying almost 30 individuals while handing out bus passes and cold weather items.

Throughout the morning, Team 2 encountered several people sleeping on the streets who, while taking the survey, said they were not homeless. Officials said that while people might not want to admit to being homeless or needing assistance, it’s typically a coping mechanism or due to mental health or substance abuse issues, pride or wanting to avoid the stigma associated with homelessness.

“There’s a stigma on homelessness. There’s a stigma on, ‘I can’t take care of myself. I’m vulnerable,’” she said. “No one really wants to admit that. That’s why we tell people we just want to help you be self-sufficient. … We don’t want to force anybody to do anything. We want people to live their best lives.”

Team 2 also encountered a pregnant woman who said she simply could not afford a home. Others told volunteers they did not have a home because of incarceration, aging out of foster care, mental health issues or a combination of other factors.

Dennis Wren, a man who slept under a bridge the night before, told Gazette he had an accident that caused him to have major migraine headaches. He said living with others intensified those but once he was on his own, they subsided.

“Police, they come through here and said as long as I keep it clean, there won’t be any problems,” he said. “You make it work for you.”

He said everyone who sleeps under the same bridge knows and keeps one another accountable to make sure they don’t run into problems with the police. 

“People think that most people out here on the streets are either criminals or steal or beg, and it’s not,” he said. “Most of these guys that are down here — I’ve been down here the longest — they’re really good people. Really good people.”

Wren also expressed his gratitude to the person conducting the survey and said he was more than happy to contribute in any way that could help get at least one person into housing.

“When someone does come and talk, it makes you feel like somebody is thinking about you,” he said.

The count helps provide a snapshot of the scope of homelessness in OKC but isn’t an exclusive measuring tool and only represents a portion of the actual population. - NATHAN POPPE / THE CURBSIDE CHRONICLE / PROVIDED
  • Nathan Poppe / The Curbside Chronicle / provided
  • The count helps provide a snapshot of the scope of homelessness in OKC but isn’t an exclusive measuring tool and only represents a portion of the actual population.

Directing resources

Shadid said this year’s count was the most organized it has ever been and went off without any significant hiccups. Everyone who signed up for the morning shift showed up or called ahead to cancel, and through the various morning teams, the count also reached more places than it ever had in the past.

Results from the count help identify areas where more resources need to be directed. For example, when numbers go up for veterans or families experiencing homelessness, efforts are better coordinated to address that subpopulation and specific issues they run into. Shadid said another benefit of the count is getting people from the public directly involved and meeting with people experiencing homelessness to better understand the issue.

“A lot of people see this, and they don’t understand it. And … it’s almost like they forget people experiencing homelessness are human,” Shadid said. “It’s nice to get people in contact with them, talking with them to remind them that you’re talking about people here with problems. And yes, it is difficult to handle, but imagine how difficult their lives are. It helps to just humanize the issue so people are not so reactionary about it and kind of understand it a little better.”

The results of the count will be released around June. 

For other content in this series, visit thecurbsidechronicle.org, okgazette.com and bigiftrue.org

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