Survival is success 

While the COVID-19 pandemic has been tough on every member of our society, those already in peril or precariously close to the edge have discovered new barriers to healthy, thriving lives.

click to enlarge City Rescue Mission - PHOTO BERLIN GREEN
  • Photo Berlin Green
  • City Rescue Mission

While COVID-19 has indisputably affected the entire Oklahoma City population, marginalized groups in the metro area such as the homeless, the indigent, the mentally disabled, and those recovering from substance addiction have experienced unique challenges over the course of the last twenty months. 

While formal data relating to these challenges can be scarce and much has yet to be revealed until we are afforded the benefit of an enlightened hindsight, city residents familiar with these issues have offered the Oklahoma Gazette their insights into the pandemic’s effects upon these often overlapping marginalized groups and how members of such groups have fared throughout its duration.

The Homeless Alliance is a nonprofit organization committed to ending homelessness in Oklahoma City through collaboration and coordination with service providers, city government, and local businesses. This entity oversees the operation of the Westtown Homeless Resource Campus which includes housing, a comprehensive resource center, and a Day Center. This Day Center provides support services to homeless individuals and at-risk families with children including case management, showers, a commercial kitchen serving breakfasts and lunches, computers to provide connection with the online world, a barber shop and salon, as well as classroom space for educational opportunities including Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous classes. It also functions as a location where local organizations may engage with the homeless population to provide needed services serving roughly 350 people daily, most of whom are living on the street. To say the pandemic complicated and challenged the operations of the Homeless Alliance in its mission to provide services and partner with other entities seeking to aid the homeless and indigent of Oklahoma City would be a considerable understatement.

“Early on in the pandemic, all six of Oklahoma City’s overnight shelters, our day shelter, and the Catholic Charities shelter all suspended volunteer work. That’s a huge sacrifice for agencies like that who depend on volunteers to get their day-to-day work done,” said Dan Straughan, executive director of the Homeless Alliance.

“We did that not so much to protect our volunteers as to protect our clients because, especially early on in the pandemic when spread was happening, it was happening in restaurants, movie theaters, house parties, all places that people experiencing homelessness do not go. Our fear was that a volunteer would come in and spread the virus to our clients. Our clients are vulnerable by definition. Most of us continue even to this day not using volunteers in direct client-facing activities like serving meals. We’ve all brought volunteers back into non-client-facing activities, but for client-facing activities we’re still trying to limit that as best we can.” 

Staff were reassigned in a reduced-capacity and socially-distanced environment at the Day Shelter in an effort to compensate for the lack of volunteers. Masks for staff and clients alike became and continue to be the norm. Antiseptic ultraviolet lighting was installed. Beginning in March of 2020, coordination with local homeless shelters and charity hospitals through multiple weekly and even daily conference calls helped the Homeless Alliance knit service partners together to protect those in need against the spread of the virus throughout the homeless population. Isolation centers with medical professionals were established within the day shelter to provide a safely quarantined environment for the homeless and indigent discharged from local hospitals, and opportunities for vaccination were provided as well as testing. 

“From Sept. 1, 2020 to mid-Jan 2021, Healing Hands and a couple of other agencies conducted mass testing at all of our shelters and through street outreach. In total they administered more than 6,000 COVID-19 tests. During that whole period the non-repeat positivity rate never rose above 4 percent. We’re really proud of that because in December of 2020 the positivity rate amongst the general population in Oklahoma City was over 20 percent. Again, because the homeless population tends to live in congregative environments and has a lot of co-occurring morbidities, it makes them particularly vulnerable to spread of the virus. Keeping that positivity rate down below 5 percent was quite an accomplishment,” Straughan said. 

The 2020 Point in Time survey, an annual single-day “snapshot” of homelessness including a count of the number of homeless in Oklahoma City conducted in January of 2020 (therefore reflecting pre-pandemic numbers from 2019) found 1,573 individuals considered homeless. This is the most recent data available, as the January 2021 survey was canceled due to pre-vaccination exposure concerns (fortunately, post-vaccination infection rates indicate the survey scheduled for January 2022 should proceed). According to Straughan, however, the homeless population has grown beyond that number since that time. 

“Anecdotally, it seems that population is at the very least much more visible than it was pre-pandemic, and likely more numerous than it was pre-pandemic. It’s speculation on my part, but I think there are really three big reasons for that. The first is early in the pandemic all our overnight shelters had to reduce capacity to enable social distancing. They didn’t put people out, but they weren’t allowing as many folks in, so that reduced the number of shelter beds we had and increased the number of unsheltered homeless in the community. The second piece of that was twofold. The community was working hard to reduce the total population in the Oklahoma County Jail, so the police department and law enforcement generally in central Oklahoma implemented a cite-and-release program. They wouldn’t arrest you for camping in a place that you were not supposed to be. At most you would get a ticket and more often you’d just get a lecture and were asked to move on. So we kind of removed that consequence of not going to the shelters. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encouraged local law enforcement to leave the camps alone, because you didn’t want to take people that were naturally isolating and drive them into the congregative environment of a homeless shelter where their chance of exposure to the virus was greater. The third thing was, this is a generous community and people see need and they want to help. People saw unsheltered homeless and they just started trying to help, passing out blankets, sandwiches, water, tents in some cases, sleeping bags. It’s never going to be easy to live outside in Oklahoma City, but we kind of made it easier, and that’s contributed I think to the increase both in the number of unsheltered homeless and the visibility of that population,” he said.

click to enlarge Day shelter meal service pre-pandemic - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE HOMELESS ALLIANCE
  • Photo courtesy of the Homeless Alliance
  • Day shelter meal service pre-pandemic

Straughan also noted a substantial effort by Oklahoma City faith-based organizations, churches, and private citizens contributing on their own initiative to provide food to the homeless and indigent by delivering meals to locations such as bus stops and other frequented areas, serving out of vehicle windows to limit exposure as much
as possible.

“If there’s a silver lining to being a disaster-prone community — and I’m thinking about things like the Murrah Building bombing, the 1999 tornadoes, the wildfires — it has taught us as a community that there is no single entity that can address these disasters. So we’ve just become used to working together to step up to a disaster. We’ve recognized in Oklahoma City that homelessness, while it’s not a disaster like a tornado, is a kind of slow-motion disaster. It is easier here for the government sector, the nonprofit sector, and the faith-based sector to come together when we need to address these issues. The pandemic was absolutely a perfect example of that, getting all the providers on the same page with the city and county health departments, the state health department, the epidemiologists at OU Medical Center, that was an easy thing to do because we are used to recognizing that we’re all pulling on the same rope,” Straughan said.

Rebecca Hayes, Area Command Director of Social Services for the Salvation Army, described how COVID-19 affected operations at their Oklahoma City emergency overnight homeless shelter. 

“We’re still looking to find ways for things to go back to normal,” Hayes said. “When the pandemic first started we followed the CDC guidelines that were set out. We only operated at 50 percent capacity then increased to 75 percent as the CDC said we could. That really affected the number of people we could serve experiencing homelessness. When you operate an emergency shelter, people are coming in and out all the time. We were looking at how you make sure people are finding shelter and meeting those basic needs, but also making sure everybody else who’s already in there is protected.”

As at the Homeless Alliance day shelter, mask-wearing remains
a requirement.

“We’re staying pretty full and have been, for the last four to five months, we have really been right at close to capacity with what we’re able to safely have. Like those in our shelter, staff are wearing masks all the time. The pandemic has added a level of stress on people that we’re all still learning to navigate even this far into it. It has been difficult on staff. During the pandemic, we’ve had times with bad winter weather, and anybody operating an emergency shelter, you still have to have staff to be there. So on top of the pandemic we have staff still showing up during times of winter storms or any kind of bad weather, and I think that says a lot about the resiliency of the staff in our shelter,” she said.

Amanda Medina-Baxter, a metro area resident, saw a great need during the onset of the pandemic to assist those struggling. In response, she founded a Facebook group designed to coordinate efforts to meet that need and continues to serve as
its administrator. 

“Hard Times 2020 was established in March 2020 after I began working remotely. It was clear this was just the beginning, so I established Hard Times specifically to help friends network resources while underemployed or unemployed,” Medina-Baxter said. 

The group currently consists of nearly 900 members.

She has also been assisting fellow Oklahomans with unemployment insurance issues during lockdown layoffs and terminations and has met bureaucratic and political hurdles at local and state levels to obtaining assistance along the way.

“I’ve enjoyed advising others, and local offices along with Shelley Zumwalt [Executive Director of the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission] have been tremendously helpful when clarification was needed. Unfortunately state leaders have been less than understanding about the difficulties facing people attempting to return to the workplace,” she said.

Scam employers posting bogus job opportunities and spamming have been an issue within the group. 

“These are people preying on those in a vulnerable situation and for some at their lowest point, and that makes me furious,” Medina-Baxter said. “I really enjoy getting feedback by members who reached out after seeing a post that advised of a job or a resource being able to get the help they needed.” 

She advises those continuing to seek assistance and those interested in lending a hand not to give up.

“Please reach out to local resources. Speak to your city council members, call your city hall and ask what services are provided for someone in hardship. Calling 211 is a good resource but seek out Facebook groups like Hard Times 2020. It’s not just for the unemployed but for anyone suffering a hardship to post about their difficulties and how they need assistance. We’ve networked to help people get health insurance or have their pets seen by a veterinarian. It’s about community. As the saying goes, ‘It takes a village,’” Medina-Baxter said.

For insight into the pandemic’s effects upon Oklahoma City’s mentally disabled and the recovering addicted, Dr. Jody Lee, doctor of internal and emergency medicine with a keen interest in epidemiology, offered
his views. 

While acknowledging the general depression he believes has been experienced one way or another by every Oklahoman since the onset of the pandemic, he emphasized those who have suffered most in terms of mental health throughout its duration are individuals who were already dealing with moderate to severe mental illness requiring close supervision, regular medical appointments, and medications to maintain their mental equilibrium. 

“Most mental health providers were ill-prepared for the transition to telehealth so the spool up for seeing all of their patients took an inordinately long time,” Lee said. “Patients who needed regular checks went without for months, medications were inadequately managed, and anxiety and mental illness in general were going to spike with an international pandemic even if we were able to transition smoothly to telehealth and virtual visits. But with the great difficulty the system had in making that transition, there were more patients doing without and suffering emotional distress needlessly. Those who needed the most help suffered the most.”

In terms of those recovering from addiction, his thought was much
the same: 

“We had inadequate resources to begin with and the pandemic brought about a precipitous decline in the evaluation and treatment of those
in recovery.” 

Himself a recovering individual who has graciously allowed Oklahoma Gazette to reveal such publicly, Lee said, “Having been in recovery from alcohol abuse for a number of years it has seemed less traumatic [for me] than for those going through the initial stages [of substance abuse recovery] either just prior to the onset of or during the pandemic.” 

For those underinsured or lacking any medical insurance, including large numbers of the homeless, the indigent, the mentally disabled, and those in addiction recovery, the situation has been even worse. 

“The free clinics and sliding-scale clinics, really all the resources normally available to provide free or subsidized mental health treatment were brought to a near standstill initially. We have fantastically inadequate resources here in Oklahoma as a baseline, then you introduce a pandemic to the mix. It was a recipe for disaster,”
he said.

Data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on national health issues, bears out Lee’s statements. From a KFF report published in Feb. 2021: “The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic recession have negatively affected many people’s mental health and created new barriers for people already suffering from mental illness and substance abuse disorders. During the pandemic, about four in 10 adults in the US have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, a share that has been largely consistent, up from one in 10 adults who reported these symptoms from January to June 2019.” 

A state-specific KFF report from October 2021 found 34.7 percent of adult Oklahomans polled reported symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive disorder, higher than the national average by four points. Of those reporting such symptoms, 32.1 percent also reported an unmet need for counseling or therapy.

For another perspective on how the pandemic has affected those seeking to recover from substance addiction, an Oklahoma City sober living house for men owner and operator offered his experience over the last twenty months. Due to privacy concerns relating to the Alcoholics Anonymous program, he shall remain unnamed.

“At first, we were in limbo,” he said. “Then, all of a sudden, it seemed in a one week period or so the guys lost their jobs because they’re all in food service, for the most part. So we now had a full sober house that had no income. They’re all scrambling for what to do. Are they going to get kicked out? Are they not? Does the house shut down? Does it not? Luckily we sprung into action. The guys were helping each other get side jobs, I was helping them get side jobs, people were stepping in and sponsoring them. There are solutions if you look for them. That’s what they were having to live through until the time came when the stimulus checks came through. At that point, we lost multiple people to stimulus money, and not in a good way. On guys suddenly having more money than they’d ever had in their lives, it’s not a good combination in my experience when you take a bunch of newly sober and homeless alcoholics and suddenly toss thousands of dollars at them, I think it endangers them versus helping them. It put undue pressure on the guys. It caused a bunch of temptation.” 

This trend, however, has reversed itself dramatically in recent months due to high job availability locally. Many recovering house members are lately obtaining service industry and other jobs almost immediately upon being accepted into his sober
living program. 

“I’ve never seen a time where it was so easy for a felon to work full time with so little effort involved in getting the job. Absolutely every guy who’s come into our homes, provided they follow the structure, gets a job,” he said.

When asked how the sudden loss of income for house members cascaded into his rent-based business model, he said, “There’s always something that leaves a financial hardship in a sober house. It’s more about how you respond to that, if you respond to it with fear or if you respond to it with action. When we respond with action, as long as we have the right motives it seems to work out all right.”

Participation in the Alcoholics Anonymous program by house members is a strict protocol in his sober living houses, requiring members to attend multiple AA meetings per week. Though not all, several local AA meeting clubhouses shut down entirely in the early days of the pandemic. Some moved to an online Zoom or similar format to continue meetings; this format, while better than nothing, proved far less effective for many of his sober living members and a slew of AA members at large. In-person meetings and the supportive fellowship it creates are considered essential by most avowed AA members. Online meetings often don’t foster the same type of communal support, particularly for those beginning the recovery process. While most AA clubhouses have reopened since the availability of coronavirus vaccines, tensions linger between different clubhouses initiating varying pandemic protocols such as mask-wearing, determined independently by each clubhouse membership.

To help ensure safety in close quarters within his sober houses, this owner modified a section to quarantine members who tested positive for the virus. A separate bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen with an alternate entrance was established. 

“When it first happened we had to determine our protocol. We took one of the quadrants of the house and reorganized it to be the sick room to play both sides, we weren’t going to shut the house down and we weren’t going to totally disregard it. Our common sense approach was to create an area where, if someone did contract COVID-19, they could safely quarantine while the guys tried to look out for both themselves and the person who was infected as well as they could,” he said.

Though four to five members in each of the two houses have tested positive over the course of the pandemic in households of anywhere from ten to fifteen members at any given time, this protocol combined with already strict hygiene measures have been successful in limiting other members’ exposure to infection. The choice of vaccination has been left to individual members to decide as each sees fit. Commitment to addiction recovery in general and the sober living program in particular are considered paramount in these individuals’ struggle to recover from their addictions, patently viewed by them and the owner/operator as itself a matter of life or death. He has noted a significant increase in the number of men seeking a safe, supportive, and effective environment while recovering from alcohol addiction, throughout the pandemic and holding steady today. 

“I don’t know what’s in the water at the moment, but we’re full with a waiting list. We certainly are packed,” he said.

Having myself been a member of all the aforementioned groups both before and during the COVID-19 outbreak, I continue to deal with mental illness and recovery from alcohol abuse. And while many of our city’s inhabitants have been affected by the pandemic in a manner less upending for them, a fact for which I am actually grateful, I may personally testify to the quite real adversities experienced by the homeless, poor, mentally disabled, and addicted being profoundly deepened by the pandemic’s rippling effects throughout our city. Though my road has not always been pleasant, I’ve received help from countless individuals along the way and have been one of the fortunates to survive this far into the new world COVID-19 has made for all of us. Others have not been so fortunate. Members of these struggling marginalized groups rarely make headlines, even within the context of their groups as a whole, and each group seems to have expanded throughout the pandemic’s course. They are largely othered, many existing well afield of society’s radar. And these groups are hardly distinct, but rather overlap substantially. In the Venn diagram of homelessness, indigence, mental disability, and addiction recovery, for three months in early 2021, I was the perfect overlap. And I wasn’t alone. There are so many others and, while I am thankful to have made it through, I remain haunted by the fact that, due to whichever unfortunate circumstance, many have not, and more will certainly be lost.

Lee summarized the entirety of the situation poignantly: “This has been an epic time of strife and turmoil which I hope we never see again. Simply making it through should be considered a win for the past year and a half. Survival is success.”

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