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Hope and dignity

Be The Change founder helps lead Oklahoma City’s homeless population to hope and homes.

Joey Stipek March 25th, 2014

On a February morning, Jonathan Roberts braces himself, first for the freezing weather and then for what he will encounter in a wooded area near northwest Oklahoma City. He is headed for a homeless encampment created out of signs, shopping carts, beat-up tents and whatever else can be reclaimed to provide warmth and shelter.

Roberts is executive director of Be The Change, an OKC nonprofit that focuses on what it calls marginalized citizens, including the homeless. Outreach teams provide services that include counseling for substance abuse and mental illness. The program also distributes food and directs people to agencies that might be able to put a roof over their heads.

What Roberts will encounter on this day are two people — two of an estimated 1,300 homeless Oklahoma City citizens — who say they are homeless by choice.

Even so, Roberts sees housing as a basic human right. “I think everyone deserves shelter. Everyone has the right to food and clothing, to be treated with dignity and respect,” he said. “And until we get to that point, we will continue to have these issues.”

Homeless by choice? The first person Roberts encounters is Terry, who said he has been homeless for 15 years. Terry once was neither homeless nor jobless. He worked a 9-to-5 job and paid his bills. He has a 9-year-old son in Florida.

They no longer communicate, Terry said, because his ex-wife has turned the child against him.

Though he is without what many would consider a home — a mailing address, indoor plumbing, a heating system — Terry does not consider himself homeless.

“Residentially challenged, housing impaired, but homeless? That says I have nowhere to lay down. You’ve got four walls and a roof,” he said, pointing to a blue-and-white tent covered in dirt and snow. “That’s a home. That’s where I go. But to say I am homeless has such a negative connotation to it. It puts such a negative stereotype to it.”

Terry said the Oklahoma City Police harass those living at the encampment and demand that they leave, usually within 48 hours.

“Where you do you go?” he asked.

To raise cash, Terry dives inside Family Dollar dumpsters to scavenge metals and cans. On a good day, he can resell the scrap for $20 to $30.

A good day for Terry is the company

of fellow encampment resident Monica, a drink of whiskey and a warm fire. The definition of a bad day is being cold and wet with nowhere to go, no money and no whiskey to drink.

Terry’s hands are covered in black grime and lacerations from cutting wires to scavenge in the darkness. His hands cause him constant pain.

Terry won’t live in a shelter. At many, he said, the hosts serve up religion as they provide a meal and a warm, dry place to sleep.

“I ain’t going to be force-fed the word of God,” he said.

Terry said his lifestyle is his choice. “When I read my declaration of independence, the Constitution said I have the right to life, liberty and happiness,” he said. “I have the right to be who I want to be. They choose to be president, they choose to be congressmen. How come I can’t be who I want to be?” Roberts walks over to check on a friend, Monica. A self-described packrat, she points to the shopping carts and bags full of clothes stored inside her tent. Monica says she, too, is homeless by choice going on three years.

Before that, Monica lived in an apartment with her boyfriend in OKC. She told her boyfriend she could pull them both out of a bad financial situation if she became a prostitute.

Monica’s boyfriend died last year.

Both were addicts, she said, citing meth as her drug of choice. These days, she drinks whiskey with Terry.

Monica also collects metals and cans to scrap and sells marijuana, which she said a friend supplies for her. On her good days, Monica makes $100 dollars selling pot, she said.

Excluding her stays in jail, Monica said she hasn’t been clean and sober for nearly 40 years and isn’t sure what it would take for her to hit rock bottom.

“I lost my boyfriend, and I lost my daughter seven years ago,” she said. “It hasn’t really changed. I miss them, and it hurts. Maybe it’s the reason I continue to use.”

Like Terry, Monica said she won’t seek shelter. She is not one to obey the rules or observe curfews, she said. However, she isn’t against change.

“When the day comes where I decide to become clean and sober, I’ll be OK with it,” she said.

Maybe that day isn’t so far off.

Roberts said in a recent follow-up interview that Monica asked him for a housing application, saying she is trying to get sober.

Change and choices
As addicts and, in some ways, social misfits, Monica and Terry may not seem sympathetic to taxpaying citizens. Even so, they are worth considering because their hardships exact a price on those taxpayers. From 2009-2010, it cost $28.7 million a year to take care of Oklahoma City’s homeless population, according to the latest figures available from the city.

Also, $14 million was spent on law enforcement and emergency services, including ambulances and the fire department; $2.6 million was spent on emergency medical services and shelter costs; and $160,000 alone was spent on one chronic homeless individual.

Out of 1,362 homeless people counted in a 2013 survey, 1,069 could be found in emergency shelters and 293 were living unsheltered.

Roberts believes when people say homelessness is their choice, it’s because they feel like they have no other options.

When people say they don’t want help, they actually do want help, Roberts said, but only on their terms. Roberts said outreach volunteers consistently visit encampments and attempt to build relationships to show people they have alternatives.

Roberts said that providing shelter is the way to go as people also have more ready access to services. Those without services often seek emergency help, which is far more costly.

“Whether its medical, police, we get people on a daily basis who end up in detox because they wind up drunk in public, whereas people with a home, that is not going to happen,” Roberts said. “We are spending more money as a city and as a state than it would cost to house every single homeless person in Oklahoma City.

Oklahoma ranks 23rd overall in homelessness by state, according to The State of Homelessness in America, a report published a year ago. Roberts said while cities like New York have a larger homeless population than in Oklahoma City, he believes its significant problem.

Help means more than just a roof
Roberts’ goal is to get homeless people like Monica and Terry into housing, regardless of their addictions or possible mental health issues.

“It’s not just getting someone into housing,” Roberts added. “It’s about helping them stay in the housing in the long term.”

Shelters, by definition, are temporary housing, and they have policies, as Monica and Terry indicated, that make some people uncomfortable and less prone to work with the social service system. A permanent home provides residents with a measure of autonomy. And even if they continue to drink or take drugs, it provides some stability and makes it easier to introduce better options, Roberts said.

Roberts understands Monica and Terry’s struggles better than many.

He, too, struggled with alcoholism but has has been clean and sober for almost 10 years. Roberts thinks that understanding his own experiences is an important part in what he does for a living. Helping the homeless is not simply an economic issue; it comes it comes from a mix of compassion and pragmatism.

Roberts lived in Kenya and worked with children who suffered with HIV and AIDS and other disabling conditions. When he returned to the U.S., he took a job with a local AIDS service organization that provided case management and support for the homeless living with HIV.

Roberts and his friends started Be The Change in 2008.

“One of our founding principles was that we weren’t trying to reinvent the wheel,” he said.

The aim is to fill gaps in services “and provide support in the absence of other services.”

Food is a good way to start the conversation with homeless people, Roberts said. The Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma City provides food to Be The Change, which helps outreach workers engage people in a conversation about their situations and how they can be changed.

Be The Change partners with 26 different agencies to provide everything from mental health coverage and substance abuse recovery to legal aid to those who are homeless.

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