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Outside the box

Downtown development is casting a spotlight on homelessness, but what are we doing about it?

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As business, leisure and capital thrive in downtown Tulsa, a growing tension between haves and have-nots is bubbling to the surface. Downtown development has been a boon for Tulsa’s economic vitality, but gentrification is a complex process. Although many of the changes it brings are desirable, they most often benefit newcomers and marginalize established residents. 

Long before the boom that brought the BOK Center, ONEOK Field, Guthrie Green and most of your favorite restaurants and bars, homeless people and social service providers have existed downtown. But with increasing development and gentrification, more people are paying attention to the guy at the corner asking for change, the kid sleeping in the entryway and the bags of clothes left behind the dumpster for safekeeping. No matter where you go downtown, you’re only ever a few steps away from a crisis service center, a jail, one of the three homeless shelters, a DHS office, a drop-in center for homeless youth, a soup kitchen or any of the various agencies offering case management and emergency services. Some of these centers have been downtown for decades. But, as more money and traffic has flowed into downtown, homelessness has become a hot-button issue. Many downtown goers and business owners view the homeless living downtown as vagrants, bums, vandals and thieves. But is this accurate?

click to expandHomelessness snapshot

First, no matter their circumstances, homeless people are human beings with basic rights. The Charter of the United Nations recognizes “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” as “the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.” These rights are derived from the “inherent dignity of the human person.*

Tulsa organizations participate in a national one-night “point in time” homeless consumer survey each January. In 2014 the survey was administered to 1,315 individuals in Tulsa—and more than 600,000 nationally—though experts note that the counts reflect an underreporting of homelessness. Across the country, homeless individuals reported a vast range of experiences; each had a unique story. For instance, in Tulsa nearly 150 of the respondents were veterans, and more than 200 were homeless families.

Major Travis Yates, a 21-year member of the Tulsa Police Department and the Gilcrease Division commander, said the issue of homelessness downtown involves a convergence of several challenges:

  • tough economic times
  • increased visibility of homelessness
  • criminal activity
  • outdated laws that are difficult to enforce
  • increased flow of downtown patrons
  • pressure from business owners trying to protect their investments

Some people on the streets face chronic and severe mental health challenges. Some are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Some are not homeless, but are there specifically to engage in criminal or predatory activity.

“Where there are businesses, where there are people, they will be preyed upon by the criminal element,” Yates said. “That is what we’re concerned with, is the criminal element.”

Despite the evident complexity of these challenges, many simply treat homelessness as bad for business, and the desire to remove homeless people from certain areas often results in a call to police. Yet, when responding officers choose not to make an arrest, they often receive calls from community members or business owners wanting to know why. Of course, sometimes people need to be arrested. But when calling the police becomes our “plan” for dealing with homelessness, a huge problem emerges.

*The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty has found that laws criminalizing homeless individuals for doing life-sustaining activities violate constitutional protections:

  • Freedom of speech under the 1st amendment: anti-begging/panhandling laws
  • Freedom from cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th amendment: anti-sitting/standing/sleeping/food sharing laws
  • Right to due process under the law under the 14th amendment: access to justice without financial means, transportation or permanent address; homeless persons are incarcerated more often and longer than others 

In March, the United Nations Human Rights Committee reviewed the U.S.’s record on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The committee raised concerns about the criminalization of everyday human activities; discrimination toward the homeless; and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. The committee urged the government to:

  • Abolish state and local laws and policies criminalizing homelessness
  • Coordinate resources to find human rights solutions to homelessness
  • Incentivize alternative policy approaches
  • Withdraw funding for local entities that criminalize homelessness

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination made these same recommendations in August.