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Minding the gap

The long road to ending Homelessness in Tulsa

Lilly getting warm at their campsite on a bitter night that dipped below 15 degrees.

Photos by Joseph Rushmore

When Eli was 11, he lived in a white Chevy Astro with his grandpa. They slept in parking lots, or in different neighborhoods across East Tulsa—anywhere that felt safe. Eli was just a regular kid. His two prized possessions at the time were his red Wrestlemania lunchbox, and a blue denim jacket given to him by his aunt. On the days he went to school, he walked home to wherever their van was parked for the evening.

His grandpa bounced around different places, with Eli in tow, for almost a year before finding steady work. They stayed in a Motel 6 some nights. Eli’s grandpa would work for a few weeks or months, but eventually his arthritis would become debilitating and he’d be forced to stop working. The van they’d been sleeping in finally broke down last winter, and like many families experiencing homelessness, they suddenly needed options.

Stories like this are too common in Oklahoma. More than 5,800 people experienced homelessness in Tulsa in 2018, according to a report by the Community Service Council.

Each January, on one of the coldest nights of the year, the Council sends out street teams to count individuals and families in need of shelter. These 24-hour time periods of data collection are called “point in time counts.” This annual process has helped Tulsa develop a better safety net: a network of church-based and secular organizations, nonprofits, and government programs for individuals and families in need of safe, affordable housing.

Thanks in part to the efforts of these dedicated local providers, Eli and his grandpa have a home today—but there are still too many vulnerable Tulsans falling through the cracks.

On Feb. 21, Mayor GT Bynum held a ceremony at the Greenwood Cultural Center to announce the strategic planning kickoff for a new initiative to end homelessness in Tulsa. “A Way Home Tulsa” is a collaborative project led by providers and organizations coordinated by the Community Service Council. The goal is to take more than 100 different groups working to empower struggling Oklahomans and to better coordinate their care.

The factors that contribute to families experiencing homelessness are complex, and studies of successful interventions have shown that the most effective strategy is a wide continuum of care. This strategy is founded on the notion that there’s a broad spectrum of issues that drive people towards these difficult outcomes, and only a collaborative structure which brings everyone to the table can fix them.

Tyler Parette is the program manager at the City Lights Foundation of Tulsa, a nonprofit offering programs aimed at serving homeless and low-income people, along with any other Oklahoman in need. Every Thursday night, their “Night Lights” initiative provides food and resources for vulnerable Tulsans under the I-244 overpass just west of downtown.  

“For any of us, there are a set number of steps that we are away from homelessness. Not all of those steps are decisions,” Parette said. “Many of these steps are events that happen to us. Could be some type of a diagnosis, where you lose your job, lose your ability to work, lose your ability to pay rent in some circumstances, and lose your ability to pay your utilities which could lead to an eviction.”

Parette has worked on these issues in Oklahoma for several years, and he remains hopeful that a more focused initiative could help more people. “[We need] to move the needle forward on the progress that we’re making, and definitely keep [ourselves] from sliding backwards,” he said. “Which, if you look at point in time counts, that’s definitely something we’re afraid of. We’re afraid we’re not moving forward. There are real gaps that exist in the process of empowering vulnerable families, and I hope we can spend more time in all of our organizations thinking about those gaps.”

Parette drew a graph to illustrate the problem. The Y-axis was a person’s ability to recover from the negative impacts of homelessness: hunger, detrimental health effects, increased likelihood of experiencing violence or involvement with the justice system, to name just a few. The X-axis is when people become eligible for some sort of intervention. Right now, the gap between these two lines is one of the major problems the mayor’s new strategic initiative hopes to solve.

Too often, people aren’t eligible for services until they’ve already experienced so many negative effects from homelessness that their recovery process is much longer and more resource-intensive than would have been necessary with an earlier intervention.

Joseph (left), answers questions for the the Community Service Council census as volunteer Nick Gleason takes down his information.“One of the reasons the Community Service Council has these annual counts is to try and determine where more resources are needed, and which interventions have been successful, and which haven’t,” said Heather Hope Hernandez, former chief of external affairs at the Community Service Council, who worked on this year’s count. “It’s often difficult to match resources with the people most in need.”

The Department of Housing and Urban Development has specific legal definitions for homelessness, and these standards determine an individual's eligibility for federal dollars. Organizations competing for scarce government resources are often unable to fund projects which step outside the narrow confines of these legal parameters. If a person isn’t a veteran, or they don’t have children, or they’ve found temporary housing for a few days, they may fall outside of the parameters of federal funding. This is because organizations who receive HUD funding are often not collaborating on the gaps between their care.   

“Philosophical differences between groups is one of the things preventing organizations from working together. Different beliefs on how people—or even which people—should be served are stopping us from being as effective as we could be,” Parette said. “I think the way that we move past that is recognizing that service happens on a very broad continuum, and that no one organization in Tulsa is going to be able to solve homelessness on their own.”

Each organization in Tulsa is uniquely equipped to cater to very specific populations that experience homelessness,” he continued. “There are organizations that focus on families, veterans, those with mental illness or any of a wide array of issues related to homelessness. For those individuals who don’t check any of those boxes, I couldn’t even tell you how large a population that might be.”

One of Parette’s recent clients epitomized this condition. She occasionally stayed at the Salvation Army or Day Center, along with a couple of other shelters in town. She needed housing. She had been diagnosed bipolar, but wasn’t taking medication. She was skeptical of organizations and their ability to help her, because she had been turned away by so many. People told her they couldn’t help, and that she’d have to wait to receive care.

This woman was essentially stuck on the edge of that HUD definition of chronic homelessness. She had not been out on the street long enough to qualify for housing services—and waiting on the street only increases the chance of experiencing greater trauma. City Lights doesn’t specifically provide housing, and other HUD-funded organizations could not house the woman either. Any group that directs HUD dollars to ineligible individuals could be in jeopardy of losing their HUD funding.

Essentially this woman was in what Parette calls a “purgatory” of having to wait in shelters even though she was actively looking for a way to transition out of them. This is basically the social services equivalent of what health care providers call a “coverage gap.” This woman is still on the streets today—stuck, angry, and frustrated by the system's failure on her behalf.

Another important piece of this problem is the question of trauma. ACES is an acronym for adverse childhood experiences. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention defines ACES as traumatic childhood experiences with a tremendous impact on future violence, victimization and lifelong health. Oklahoma has the highest rate of people in the country who have reported experiencing two more of these adverse childhood experiences before age 17.

Trauma is one of the clearest indicators that someone is at greater risk of experiencing homelessness. This means that trauma-informed care is a big part of strengthening Tulsa’s safety net, according to Lauren Turner, mental health policy analyst at the Oklahoma Policy Institute.

“It seems to me like it is an intersection of a lot of systemic problems that hurt people who are particularly vulnerable,” Turner said. She sees these issues as part of a network of problems, from economics to family dynamics and the criminal justice system. “Where are people supposed to live and work after being justice involved? Currently, there are a lot of agencies doing a lot of great work in the behavioral health arena, but the lack of investment means that there are still a lot of gaps that people who are particularly vulnerable to slip through.”

The development of more resources towards trauma-informed care for each of these problem areas is another vital step towards altering the conditions which help drive systemic poverty in Oklahoma.

Melissa Baldwin, director of criminal justice reform for the Mental Health Association of Oklahoma, agrees. “We put too much of a burden on our local police to solve these problems. Often these officers are not given adequate training and support to deal with those who’ve experienced mental illness and trauma.”

Baldwin has recently helped develop a pilot rapid-response team to assist law enforcement in providing better care for those who may be struggling with untreated mental illness. Prison is a costly and often inhumane remedy for people who may simply need treatment, and often a person’s inability to access that treatment only exacerbates the conditions which led them to crisis.    

“Whether someone has been in the foster care system, or they had abusive parents, or even if they experienced homelessness as a child with their parents. All of those would count as traumatic experiences and so the likelihood that they would then continue to experience homelessness into adulthood is really high,” Baldwin said. “This is why we’re trying to provide better mental health training for our officers, and we want to make it easier for individuals to access help before they ever encounter law enforcement.”

Perhaps the single biggest impediment to ending this problem is the relative invisibility of the poor. Providing resources to Oklahomans experiencing homelessness is complicated by the fact that most of us simply don’t come into regular, meaningful contact with those in need.

“The coverage gaps in service to homeless populations are unique in that people experiencing homelessness have a difficult time advocating for themselves. Most organizations that serve this community are already overcapacity, and so looking for ways to fill these gaps isn’t something they even have the resources to begin to do,” Parette said.

The only way to combat the invisibility of people who are falling through the cracks is by building relationships and learning the stories of actual people dealing with impact of long term poverty. The stigma of homelessness is one of the most pernicious barriers to change. “When no one in our city believes that people experiencing homelessness can be different, then those people are unlikely to believe in themselves,” Parette said.

A man named Harvey is one of the individuals who has most encouraged Parette on his journey to build these relationships. He’s an Army veteran who was struggling with addiction and living in the River West neighborhood by City Lights. Harvey had seven brothers and sisters. He dropped out of school and joined the Army after his girlfriend got pregnant. He had three kids and was a welder, driving heavy machinery after his service. After Harvey and his wife got divorced, he lost his home in Missouri and ended up back in Tulsa—turning to drugs to cope with a number of painful experiences, including the loss of a woman he loved to cancer.

“Being homeless is hard to do,” Harvey said. “It’s hard to know who to trust. I didn’t care about me anymore. I didn’t care about anything.”

One day, Harvey was walking by the City Lights building, desperately lost and looking for help. He prayed that “God would either let [him] die or help [him] find a way to get clean.” A group of volunteers had written God Loves You and other encouraging words in sidewalk chalk in front of building. Harvey read the message on the sidewalk and walked through the doors. That day started a long process towards recovery.

Harvey now volunteers at City Lights, between 30 and 40 hours a week. He offers simple advice on the best way to help those in need: “Try not to judge. They’re already there in the ditch trying to reach out. Someone that is hungry, and they don’t feel like they’re worth anything.  That’s a child of God right there. Give them that ability to uplift. Make them feel that they’re worthy of something. I needed that when I was out there. I know there are people who need that even worse than me.”

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