As Oklahoma City revitalizes, questions arise about long-term state of homeless 

Ruben Martinez tells his story from inside The Salvation Army Central Oklahoma Area Command's Family Shelter. It's a heart-wrenching tale of how his family became displaced last year. He said he lost his job as a truck driver due in part to the economic recession, and he was unable to find another position because of personal health problems. Relatives provided some support, he said, but before long, Martinez, his wife and their kids were living out of a van.

'Out of view'A new resource
Gimme shelter

'They just kind of left'

"We stayed in the van, you know, probably three or four weeks, five weeks. I kept going to churches for help. They helped us with food, but, you know, that's about it. We looked everywhere for help "¦ we couldn't find " places were full," he said.

Finally, late last year, The Salvation Army had an opening for Martinez and his family, he said. They have been living there since.Martinez is trying to get his family out of the shelter, but regardless of whether he is successful in this effort, he will not be living in his current shelter for much longer.

That's because The Salvation Army is relocating. Its current location is in the future home of Core to Shore, a beautification initiative to redevelop hundreds of acres from the central business district to the Oklahoma River's shore.

After MAPS 3's passage, the Core to Shore steering committee determined public improvements should take place to encourage private sector investment.

The Oklahoma City Council recently declared the area blighted and subject to urban renewal. When Oklahoma City surveyed residents to list initial suggestions for MAPS 3, the term "homeless" received 27 votes, compared to 22 votes for "fairgrounds," which received $60 million in upgrades on the final ballot initiative. MAPS 3 also included $130 million for a 70-acre downtown central park, with funds covering the cost of land acquisition, razing existing structures and construction in an area that includes The Salvation Army's current property, and a $280 million new convention center to be built at an undetermined location. Additionally, OKC is launching Project 180. With a price tag of $140 million, this massive project will renovate sidewalks, streets, plazas and parks near Devon Tower. Meanwhile, work on the estimated $75 million boulevard to run between Oklahoma Avenue on the east and Walker Avenue on the west is set to begin in 2013. Although questions remain about the boulevard's funding, the pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare is expected to connect downtown with the nearby Oklahoma River.

With all this work scheduled, plans are in place to move The Salvation Army's command center campus outside the Core to Shore project area, said Jeff Lara, the organization's director of operations and programs.

"The Salvation Army Central Oklahoma Area Command will be vacating its current property, located in the Core to Shore area, and will rebuild new facilities near downtown. However, because we are currently in negotiations, we are unable to provide more detailed information regarding our move," Lara said in a statement.

Is OKC simply relocating the homeless and transient service providers that are currently in the Core to Shore area without doing enough to actually solve the problem of homelessness? Or is the city making enough of a good-faith effort to help homeless people get back on their feet?

'Out of view'
Neil Donovan, the executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, a national advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., said he has a broad understanding of homelessness throughout the country, and warned that when other cities have engaged in beautification projects, like Core to Shore, they have done so at the expense of their homeless populations.

One example that Donovan mentioned is St. Louis and its historic opera house. In that instance, a shelter was built away from the opera house so the homeless people would move away from it, as well.

"These people are now outside of the city, and they no longer can be seen," Donovan said. "You haven't cleaned up the city. You are painting a partial picture of the city."

Donovan said a similar situation occurred in Atlanta, "where they are shutting down the shelters in the middle of the city as they develop this "¦ new kind of Main Street, this peach tree world."

As development takes place, Donovan said, the homeless population is being moved out of the city's downtown.

"So what you're doing is you're admitting, not only to the homeless people, but you're admitting to yourself, as well, that this is a problem that you can't solve, and that instead of solving it, you're going to at least take it out of view," he said.

Donovan said by taking homeless people "out of view," a city is crossing a moral dividing line. "That's when you start getting into the morality or immorality of how you respond to homeless people," he said.

"When you remove them, so that you can't see them any longer, so that it doesn't bother you, then you start getting into the immorality of it. And that's when "¦ a community needs to really look at themselves."

But is that what's happening in OKC with Core to Shore?

Dan Straughan, executive director of Homeless Alliance, said no. His nonprofit organization works with the city in its capability to help homeless people.

Straughan said he thinks the homeless population will move to where the homeless service providers, like The Salvation Army, are located or relocated. But simply relocating the population is not the ultimate goal.

"More importantly, from my perspective, and, frankly, I think from the city's perspective, too, is, it's not a matter of moving them out of the development area," Straughan said. "It's fixing the problem that left them in the development area to begin with."

So what is the city doing to achieve this goal? A number of suggestions addressing this situation materialized from a task force that Mayor Mick Cornett established during Core to Shore development. Straughan said the group, dubbed the mayor's Homelessness Action Task Force, addressed the question, "If we really want the core of downtown to be a really, really nice place, what's going to have to happen with homelessness?"

According to records from the Core to Shore planning team, "The task force is charged with presenting a clear picture of homelessness in the city and making recommendations that address long-term solutions." That document addressed questions asked at a 2007 public meeting, stating, "The task force is aware of the impact the Core to Shore plan will have on the homeless population and that simply moving the problem elsewhere is not an acceptable policy approach."

Oklahoma Gazette asked homeless advocates and former task members to specify what the mayor's group accomplished, but some were hesitant to comment.

However, Straughan said the task force delivered a report that laid out "some of the things that need to happen with homelessness" for Core to Shore to be successful.

"It was successful in identifying the issues and encouraging the discussion and raising awareness," Cornett said.

A new resourceOne of those recommendations was the construction of a resource center to bring together several different agencies and service providers that deal with homelessness, said Straughan, a member of the task force.

That recommendation is in the process of becoming a reality, as the Homeless Alliance broke ground on the WestTown Resource Center earlier this year. The center, which is currently under construction, will be located on the corner of N.W. Third Street and Virginia Avenue. The land itself was purchased by the Homeless Alliance through private funding, Straughan said, and the construction is being paid for by federal grants.

When completed, the center will run as a collaboration between many different service agencies and faith groups. Its campus will include a day shelter, and Straughan said he hopes the campus will be completed by Thanksgiving, "before winter sets in."

Other major cities, including Houston and Los Angeles, have similar centers, and this approach is "a nationally recognized best practice," Straughan said.

He said it will benefit the OKC homeless population in two ways.

"If you have a resource center that co-locates the important agencies, if that's all you do, that's a good thing because you're not having to have a homeless person with limited transportation assets," he said. "You're not having to drive all over town and make appointments and all that kind of stuff. They're all just right there. It's a onestop shop."

Secondly, Straughan said, the center will allow the agencies to work in conjunction with one another, which is important because he said a person usually becomes homeless because of several problems occurring at once. He laid out a hypothetical situation as an example of how a resource center that is home to multiple service providers could help solve this problem.

"So if Healing Hands (Health Care Services) is at the table, they can make sure that "¦ open wound on your foot is taken care of," he said. "And if Red Rock (Behavioral Health Services) is there, too, then we can maybe preempt this flirtation you're having with the bottle. And if (the Department of Human Services) Child Welfare is there, maybe they can work with legal aid to make sure that you keep custody of your kids in sustainable housing. And so Homeless Alliance is there to provide that sustainable housing."

But Donovan said he is not sure a resource center is the best way to approach homelessness. He said centers like WestTown try to treat a group of people who are only unified by the fact that they are having economic difficulties.

And these centers do this, he said, by isolating homeless people from the rest of society, which is not beneficial to them.

"If you want to mainstream someone, then you better invite them onto Main Street," he said. "If you want to normalize a homeless person's experience, so that when they get into housing, it's not a jarring experience "¦ then their experience while homeless needs to be transferrable out into the housing world. So the whole idea of a one-stop center is much more responding to the needs of the person providing the service than the person receiving the service."

Donovan said he believes a better approach would be to focus on building more permanent housing that is affordable to homeless people.

"You don't have to get all better before you can move into housing. You can move into housing, and most people find that moving into housing kind of relieves a lot of stressors," he said.

Gimme shelterOKC has some affordable housing, Straughan said, but realistically, the city needs a lot more. He said the city currently funds about 30 units, but probably needs about 600. The city's planning department is trying to obtain grants to build more, he said.

The majority of the money OKC puts toward dealing with homelessness comes from federal grants, said Jane Ferrell, OKC's coordinator for the federal programs that serve homeless people in the city.

Ferrell, an urban redevelopment specialist, said OKC currently receives five federal grants totaling almost $3.5 million per year. As far as direct money from the city itself is concerned, however, she said OKC provided $121,000 toward homelessness funding in 2009 outside of an additional $115,000 it put toward WestTown. Donovan said cities essentially must rely on the federal government for enough homeless funding in many cases.

"Homelessness is such a large social ill, that "¦ a city could not solve the problem through its own resources," he said, adding that OKC is doing a good job of trying to acquire these necessary federal grants.

"Oklahoma City has (an) informed or educated group of advocates and local officials," he said, "so they know what money is available and how to apply for it and kind of what to focus their attention on."

Regardless, both critics and city advocates agree that more could always be done.

Ferrell said she authored the city's 10-year plan to end homelessness, "Homes for the Homeless," which was adopted by the City Council in 2004 and updated in 2008. That plan calls for a number of measures, she said, and some of these, like starting regular meetings between the nine homeless shelters in the city, already have been implemented.

Some of the recommendations in the plan, however, require increased funding, she said. But homelessness funding from the city has not increased since the plan was adopted.

"It has remained steady for the six or seven years I've been here," she said, "but I get to line up between, you know, police and fire and every other department of the city that wants to add money or create a new program."

Because of this, Ferrell said some of the components of the 10-year plan have not been implemented. Funding from new grants has allowed the city to do some of these things, she said, but not all.

"Certainly, there are still things that aren't done yet, but it is a 10-year plan," she said. And Cornett said a lack of funding for mental health statewide plays a role in the existence of homelessness, too.

"I don't think it's an issue that you ever assume is going to be totally resolved," he said, "especially in a state that refuses to address the mental illness issues that exist in Oklahoma."

Still, Cornett said OKC is doing more to address homelessness than it's ever done, and he said the city would be taking the same measures if the Core to Shore project didn't exist.

"There's not much of a connection between Core to Shore and the homeless issue, because we would not be doing anything differently, for instance, had the MAPS 3 vote failed. I mean, we'd be doing the exact same thing," he said.

As for now, OKC's homeless population" Ruben Martinez and his family included " must continue to hope these efforts will pay off for them on a personal level.

Martinez is trying to get his family out of the shelter, and he said he had an interview with the Oklahoma Housing Finance Agency at the end of February to determine if he and his family qualify for a chance to live in a house of their own. According to the agency's Web site, its mission is "to help place people in homes." But if Martinez is not successful in his interview, he said he is not sure what he is going to do. One thing is almost without question, however.

Martinez and his family will not be living in the Core to Shore area to see it become a beautiful park. "Will Holland

'They just kind of left'
When Houston embarked on a major downtown renovation that involved a revamped convention center and new central park, the homeless were also an issue.

Houston started its downtown revitalization more than a decade ago. The park, which opened in April 2008, cost $125 million for 12 acres. It sits right across the street from the George Brown Convention Center and brings in a lot of foot traffic from all parts of the city.

During the 2009 MAPS 3 campaign, the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber invited a group of reporters on a tour of downtown Houston. Journalists were briefed about the park by Guy Hagstette, president of Discovery Green Conservancy, which manages it.

He told the group about how the park area was dominated by parking lots before the renovation. He also talked about how the area was a haven for the homeless, but no special effort was needed to move the homeless out.

"When they started seeing all the construction and activity going on, they just kind of left," Hagstette said.

As OKC embarks on its new urban park, what kind of security is being coordinated? City planning director Russell Claus told Oklahoma Gazette last November that parks like Discovery Green could serve as a model.

"(Security) has not yet been determined, since the governance structure for the park has not yet been determined," Claus said. "The idea of a private conservancy is being considered since this is a successful, commonly used approach employed by other urban parks.

"It is anticipated that security will likely be provided through some blend of uniformed police patrols during normal non-peak operations, and a combination of police and security for special events. Quite frequently, special events hire their own security, which can include off-duty police officers.""Scott Cooper

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