July 7, 2016

Battling Heat, Homeless Also Face Freeze of State’s Wait List for Housing Aid

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Homeless and other low-income people took refuge from the heat on Thursday in WestTown day shelter west of downtown Oklahoma City.

Erick Payne/Oklahoma Watch

Homeless and other low-income people took refuge from the heat on Thursday in WestTown day shelter west of downtown Oklahoma City.

Even as the heat takes a toll on Oklahoma’s homeless population, another potential hardship has developed related to efforts to get the homeless off the streets.

The Oklahoma Housing Finance Agency has decided to join the Oklahoma City Housing Authority in closing its waiting list for the Housing Choice Voucher Program, more commonly known as Section 8. The federally funded service provides rental subsidies for homeless and low-income families, and about 10,250 Oklahoma families receive the assistance.

But increased demand for the vouchers, driven by the economic recession, prompted the state Housing Finance Agency, which serves all 77 counties, to stop taking applications as of June 1.

“We have over 20,000 people on our waiting list,” said Deborah Jenkins, director of the agency’s rental assistance program. “So there was no way we could reach all those people in a reasonable period of time, and it just didn’t make sense to continue accepting applications when we know we couldn’t serve them.”

This is only the third time in 30 years that the Oklahoma Housing Finance Agency has closed its waiting list.

Dennis Shockley, executive director of the Oklahoma Housing Finance Agency, said he doesn’t know when they will start accepting applications again, but it will be “awhile.”

Dan Straughan, executive director of the Homeless Alliance, said taking Section 8 off the table as an option is a big blow, especially for the homeless who have to battle the summer heat and the winter cold.

“The median housing prices that we have in rent in Oklahoma City are four times what a person below the poverty line can afford,” he said. “So as a community, we are pretty reliant on the housing choice vouchers.”

The risks for the homeless were evident on Thursday west of downtown Oklahoma City, where homeless people gathered in the day shelter of the Homeless Alliance’s WestTown Homeless Resource Center. They get food, showers and other services. Straughan said his staff has been handing out water and monitoring signs of heat stroke and other health issues for the more than 300 who visit the shelter every day.

The number of visitors has climbed since November, which reflects the surprisingly higher count of homeless people recorded in the city’s point-in-time count in January. The official report has not yet been released, but Straughan said the total was about 1,500, up from around 1,300 last year. He noted that the annual count is imperfect because it can fluctuate depending on the weather and the timing.

Right now, “it’s just so freaking hot,” Straughan said. “That’s when it really gets tough for unsheltered homeless people.”

Also, “the bugs, especially ticks, are really bad this year,” he said. “You scramble around for as much deep insect repellant you can afford to buy or get donated and pass it out.”

The other aspect of the heat is that it saps homeless people’s energy to seek assistance.

“You just want to sit and stay in the shade and not move, so we see lot of missed appointments and things like that,” Straughan said.

Adding to the stress was the freeze on the waiting list for subsidized housing. Within the past few years, Oklahoma City has joined Tulsa and other cities across the nation in using a “housing first” approach to attack homelessness. The concept involves finding a home for people first of all, then providing services to deal with other issues, such as drug or alcohol abuse.

The Housing Choice voucher program is administered by the Oklahoma Housing Finance Agency and about 20 local housing authorities throughout the state.

Jenkins, the state’s director of the program, said federal funding or the allotment of how many vouchers Oklahoma receives from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has remained flat in recent years. But she said demand for the vouchers, which first escalated during the recession from 2007 to 2009, has picked up again, outpacing supply of the vouchers.

“I definitely believe the economy has a lot to do with it,” she said. “We have people applying for this program now who would never have previously applied for it.”

Shockley, director of the state housing agency, said homeless or low-income residents have other options for finding affordable housing.

Several local housing authorities, including the Housing Authority of the City of Tulsa and the Norman Housing Authority of Oklahoma, are still accepting Section 8 applications. Still, it can be months or years before the housing subsidy is awarded. In the meantime, many other government or charity-based programs help people find temporary housing, Shockley said.

Jack Barton, 57, has been homeless for the past three years in Oklahoma City. He was fortunate to get on a waiting list for a housing voucher before the state and city housing authorities stopped taking applications.

He said he was notified about four months ago that he would finally get a roof over his head. But he is still waiting for the voucher.

He now spends most of the day in the air-conditioned WestTown shelter. When the shelter closes at 4 p.m., he and hundreds of other people there venture back outdoors. But even during cooler evenings, it is difficult to avoid heat stroke and dehydration, he said. Hundreds of people in need, though not all, head for the City Rescue Mission’s overnight shelter, located about a mile southeast of the day shelter.

Barton said in addition to fending off biting insects in the small camp where he spends his nights, he must muster the energy to find clean drinking water.

“I almost passed out a few days ago,” Barton said. “Thankfully, someone came and gave me some water. I’m just tired of living on the streets.”

Straughan said his shelter and other charities usually see coats and other cold-weather donations during this time of year. Instead, he suggested donating bottled water or mosquito repellant.

“But the best way is always cash,” he said. “That goes without saying.”