Jackie Genske receives a food package from Shawn Kline, a social worker from Mental Health Association Oklahoma, during homeless outreach below the levee on the Arkansas River west of downtown Tulsa Friday, April 24, 2020. The encampments have grown as downtown shelters limit contact and entry due to the COVID-19 outbreak. (Photo by Mike Simons)
Clients line up outside Iron Gate in downtown Tulsa. Most are homeless, and usually 218 of them are allowed into the kitchen to eat together in what Iron Gate Executive Director Carrie Vesely Henderson calls a very “high-touch” experience.
This is what it looks like since the COVID-19 outbreak: They’ve had to switch to grab-and-go meals. Most eat sitting on the sidewalk outside Tulsa’s largest standalone soup kitchen and grocery pantry as a heavy rain turns to hail. Iron Gate has seen a 40 percent increase in food pantry traffic. Employees have seen volunteers and even donors in the line for groceries.
Most social service agencies in Tulsa have had to adjust their operations. The Community Food Bank of eastern Oklahoma has seen increased demand due to the skyrocketing unemployment rate. Hunger Free Oklahoma saw another problem: food industry workers unemployed, adding to the crisis. They started Tulsa Kitchens Unite, which pays local restaurants to make meals to give to those in need.
A homeless encampment below the levee on the Arkansas River has been growing. Shelters are limiting contact with people experiencing homelessness, and more are being forced to sleep outside. Mental Health Association Oklahoma continues to do outreach, giving food, toiletries and COVID-19 information to the people living there. Homeless Outreach and Rapid Response Clinical Coordinator Jessica Kelly says, “We’re going to see an influx of people experiencing homelessness” due to the outbreak’s resulting financial crisis.
What follows is a multimedia essay of what it looks like for those who serve and receive amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
‘Living on the Levee’
‘By Any Means Necessary’
‘A Whole New Wave of People’
Mike Simons is a staff photographer at the Tulsa World. He worked on this project while furloughed due to the COVID-19 outbreak. He graduated from University of Central Oklahoma with a degree in journalism/photographic arts. He is married to Brandi and they have two daughters, Sonnie and Sarah. Find him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @mikesimonsphoto or his website mikesimonsphoto.com.
How to Help
Contact information for agencies mentioned in this video and photo essay:
Mental Health Association 5330 East 31st St., Suite 1000 Tulsa, OK 74135 Phone: (918) 585-1213 mhaok.org
The Coronavirus Storytelling Project is a collaboration between the Oklahoma-based Inasmuch Foundation, the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame and Oklahoma Watch to help state journalists who have been furloughed or displaced as well as those in struggling community news organizations. The Inasmuch Foundation has pledged $50,000 to launch the project and provide five $500 grants to those accepted into the project each week for the next four months. Apply here.
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