By Michael Kinney
OKLAHOMA CITY– As arctic weather sweeps across much of the country, thousands of people are trying to find ways to endure and survive the next few days. Oklahoma is one of those states that is in the midst of a two-week run of below-freezing temperatures.
The homeless community throughout the state is running out of options. While many have been able to find places to sleep at a variety of shelters, most are trying to make do on the streets.
“Well over one thousand people are homelessness in Oklahoma City on any given day,” said Jerod Shadid, Oklahoma City’s homeless program planner. “We need to offer safe, socially distanced places for people to take refuge from the cold.”
In January of 2020, there were a total of 1,573 “countable” people who were experiencing homelessness in Oklahoma City on the night of the Point in Time count. In the year since the count was taken, much has taken place that has officials believing that number has grown significantly.
“A lot of people have suffered financial hardships because of the pandemic, cut back on hours at work, loss of jobs, ultimately we do expect to see an increase in homelessness,” Kinsey Crocker of the Homeless Alliance said.
In downtown Oklahoma City, several mini tent cities have popped up in alleys and side streets. That includes several that are now surrounding the Homeless Alliance (1729 NW 3rd), which normally runs a day shelter during normal times.
“Our Day Shelter will be open during the day 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. for people to come in and warm up with breakfast, lunch, and showers,” Alliance officials said. “While we don’t typically have the budget to operate 7-days a week, we will be open every day for at least the next weeks to allow people to get out of the dangerous weather. We are also temporarily relaxing social distancing restrictions to allow more people inside. Masks are required, and everyone is welcome.”
However, it is at night that things can become dire for the homeless. Some shelters do offer overnight lodging, such as Salvation Army, City Rescue Mission, Jesus House, Grace Rescue Mission, Sisu Youth and Pivot. But they are nearing full capacity.
The Homeless Alliance opened up the Willard Winter Emergency Shelter (1400 NW 3rd) for overnight use. It can hold up to 230 people a night. Yet, executive director Dan Straughn said they don’t plan to turn away those in need even when they reach capacity.
“We have 230 cots. Which means we have 230 bodies in beds and No. 231 comes in, we’re not going to say there is no room at the inn,” Straughn said.
According to meteorologists, six to eight inches of snow is expected Sunday with temperatures dipping to below zero by Monday. The real feel is expected to reach as low as minus (-)33 in some parts of the state.
Being out in those extreme conditions for long periods of time can cause frostbite, hypothermia and even death. Many of those who will fall ill have mental illnesses that will prevent them from seeking the needed help.
While some people who are living on the streets have gotten their hands on camping tents and other protective items, others have built shacks out of wood, grass, trash and discarded items. None of the options are good for what is coming.
“Homelessness is a crisis that people struggle with every day, but when temperatures get this low and for this long, it can be deadly,” said Crocker.
Other cities throughout the state have the same problem of not only finding space for the homeless, but also geting them to seek help. That includes Lawton, Tulsa, Midwest City and Moore.
Shelter officials are encouraging residents to donate items such as coats, gloves, socks, stocking hats, tents or provide financial support. You can also donate to a local group that is raising funds for the homeless. ( https://gofund.me/3d17b335)
Photos by Michael Kinney
Michael Kinney Media