Face of homelessness in Oklahoma City changes

"Dale" worked hard in a reasonable construction job refinishing floors. There are a lot of gymnasiums in the Oklahoma City metro area, and his company had contracts with the big one " the University of Oklahoma, as well as a number of others.


But then came the recession, at least in the rest of the country. While numerous articles were touting Oklahoma's recession-proof miracle economy, orders for refinishing gymnasium floors fell to a trickle. Dale's company fell on hard times. His boss sold out to a competitor, and Dale suddenly found himself without a job.

Tina, his wife, kept her job as a waitress. With their 4-year-old son in tow, they moved in with another couple and doubled-up in an apartment, splitting the rent while Dale looked for another job.

"They had a small baby," Tina said. "They led us to believe that they'd paid their half of the rent. They didn't. So when they got served with the eviction notice, we got kicked out and had nowhere to go."

Dale chimed in. "We stayed in motel rooms for 40 dollars a night for probably three weeks. She'd make just enough money," he said.

"Finally, one day, I didn't make enough money to pay for it," Tina continued. "So we came here instead."

"Here" is The Salvation Army's family lodge, a homeless shelter for families near Interstate 40.

Dale and Tina, along with their son Zach, are part of the fastest-growing segment of homeless throughout the country " families with children.

Growing every place but Oklahoma, that is. Figures just released by the Oklahoma City-based Homeless Alliance, a nonprofit agency that helps coordinate relief efforts between public and private sponsors, show that the number of homeless families in Oklahoma City has leveled off, bucking the national trend, much like the local economy.

"One year does not a trend make, and we recognize that," said Dan Straughan, executive director of Homeless Alliance. "But that was our fastest growing problem, so you had a whole bunch of agencies come together with the idea of ending that trend, so at least for one year, it appears to be working. We are going to use stimulus money to expand that program, and maybe we will have even better numbers next year."

According to figures released by the alliance, the numbers of homeless in Oklahoma City increased 4 percent from 2008 to 2009, to a total of 1,475 "countable" homeless individuals in Oklahoma City. The figures say "countable" because there are many who are couch-surfing from one relative or acquaintance to the next. It is also estimated that the total number of homeless is four to five times greater than those accounted for in the one-night count. According to figures from the alliance, that number means that there are actually around 6-7,000 people or more in Oklahoma City who have no home.

An alarming upward trend, Straughan said, is that 14 percent of homeless report having owned a home immediately prior to becoming homeless. That's a nearly 34 percent increase since 2007.

"That surprised us," he said, noting Oklahoma City's notoriously low housing costs. And it's a trend that's continuing. "Since January, there is a large increase in the calls from people that we are getting, from folks that have never been in this position before, or never even contemplated being in this position before. They are completely at sea when they call. That's kinda new for us."

Straughan said these people are the early warning system for the rest of us, the canaries in a coal mine who could be harbingers of harder times to come.

"These are the people who have always been close, but always managed to make it from month to month, and over the last eight to 12 months, that's no longer been possible," he said. "They trip over into homelessness and have no idea what's next."

On the one hand, Straughan said, the recession probably hit Oklahoma more lightly than the rest of the country. On the other hand, however, Oklahoma is poorer to begin with.

"We started off with a lower per-capita income, so even though the recession here was light, it was enough to push a lot of families and individuals over the edge," he said.

From the experience of Tina, Dale and Zach, Straughan's assessment would seem prophetic.

"You don't ever think you are going to be here until you are," Tina said. "You never think "¦ you'd get the point that you wouldn't have a roof over your head. But one thing can happen and it's a domino effect, and the next thing, you wake up in a place like this, and you didn't think it would ever come to that."

Oklahoma City's 2009 "Point in Time" homeless count (Source: Homeless Alliance) reveals:

A total of 1,475 "countable" homeless individuals in Oklahoma City. A large number of youth are homeless. Of the total, 16 percent are age 17 and under. 18 percent reported being a member of a homeless family. 15 percent reported veteran status. 22 percent reported mental illness. The ages ranged from a one-week-old infant to 70 years old. 14 percent reported owning a home immediately prior to becoming homeless. That is a 33.74 percent increase over 2007. As their last permanent residence: 63 percent reported Oklahoma City, 14 percent reported other cities in Oklahoma and 23 percent reported out of state. 4 percent reported being a victim of domestic violence.

"Ben Fenwick

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