As 50 Oklahoma City clergy and community members huddled around tables at the Mayflower Congregational Church in November, they clutched packets that to them represented a looming crisis.
The next day’s city council agenda included Councilmember Mark Stonecipher’s proposal to classify the homeless living in encampments as trespassers, subjecting them to citations or jail time.
The group gathered at the United Church of Christ congregation in northwest Oklahoma City included business people, homeowners, relatives of people experiencing homelessness and political activists. Their efforts were reminiscent of 2015, when the city council passed an ordinance that banned panhandling on certain medians.
While Oklahoma City residents were pushing back against that law, city leaders in Milwaukee and Houston were collaborating with homeless service providers and working to sell their communities on housing-first strategies centered on street outreach.
And those systems have seen success; a 63% reduction to Houston’s homeless population. And a 92% decrease in Milwaukee’s unsheltered homeless population. Community members in Oklahoma City hoped similar systems could benefit at least a portion of the 1,339 homeless people recorded in its 2022 point-in-time count.
So the plan for the Nov. 22 meeting was to cite those alternatives to prosecuting the homeless, stack Bibles on a podium while invoking the Good Samaritan parable and flood council chambers.
Some 40 community members signed up for public comment in what became a heated hours-long meeting ending with Stonecipher striking his ordinances.
Until now, the city of Oklahoma City hasn’t funded teams that travel to encampments to help homeless people overcome barriers to housing. Instead, this type of street outreach has been done through nonprofits like the Homeless Alliance and the Mental Health Association Oklahoma.
Homeless Alliance executive director Dan Straughan said his organization has had to cover the operating costs for their two-person team through grants and donations.
But city leaders announced plans to invest approximately $600,000 annually through taxpayer dollars on a street outreach pilot program starting this year. Some advocates and city leaders say Milwaukee and Houston could serve as examples as Oklahoma City develops its system.
What Oklahoma City’s Street Outreach Looks Like Now
Stephanie Newman’s eyes darted as she guided a gray SUV south of Oklahoma City’s downtown area. As part of the Mental Health Association’s street outreach team, winding through the city and searching for people to connect with resources and housing was a familiar process.
Newman is motivated by a determination that no one becomes comfortable living on Oklahoma City streets. She and the team’s nurse, Tim Chandler, set out to warn people sleeping outside about temperatures dipping below freezing. This meant driving slowly down winding neighborhood roads and past fields with sparse trees, hoping to spot a new cluster of tents or backpacks full of belongings.
They visited one encampment on a side street, tucked behind a fence marked “Private property, no trespassing.” Ja-lee Foreman, a tall man with sandy blonde hair wearing a thin pullover and jeans, came to greet them as the team pulled up to deliver sleeping bags, food and water.
Foreman is one of about 90 clients Newman tries to contact weekly. She handed bus passes to him and some of the other people in his encampment, encouraging them to go to one of the city’s shelters for the night.
“They’re letting everybody in,” Newman said. “They’re not asking questions.”
The encampment on city property meant city staff legally could disperse the people living there. Newman said that complicates her team’s efforts to find clients. If a housing opportunity comes up and they can’t find that client, it’s back to square one.
Later, the team encountered Marcus Fuller, another of Newman’s clients. Fuller, 50, said he lost his job and was forced onto the streets about three years ago after being unable to cover everyday expenses.
A series of simple drug possession charges against Fuller almost a decade ago has complicated Newman’s efforts to find housing for him. Landlords willing to work with a criminal record are in short supply and their properties fill up quickly, she said.
Despite these challenges, the four-person street outreach team found housing for 125 clients in 2022.
What Street Outreach Could Look Like
Oklahoma City plans to fund its first two street outreach teams in 2023, said Lindsay Cates, a manager in Oklahoma City’s planning department.
According to a request for proposal, the teams would work to provide a non-police response to low-risk calls to 911. The three-person teams will likely consist of a combination of licensed mental health professionals, case managers, and specialists who have personal experience with mental health crises or substance abuse and can guide clients through recovery.
Houston had the nation’s sixth-highest homeless population in 2012, said Catherine Villarreal, the director of communications for the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County. Local service providers began focusing more on collaborating to shrink that number. Their efforts are funded mostly through federal dollars, though the city and county act as strategic partners and funnel some of that funding to service providers, Villarreal said.
Though public camping is illegal in Houston, encampments are only shut down if housing is available for each resident. Nonprofits run the city’s street outreach teams, which act as the starting point for building trust and connecting homeless people with services, Villarreal said.
They enter people who are eligible for permanent housing into their waitlist, Villarreal said. Services that clients access in the meantime are tracked in a collaborative database.
Even after clients move into housing, case managers help provide access to mental health or substance abuse services, career counseling and other forms of support, Villarreal said.
Milwaukee adopted a similar housing-first strategy in 2015 after city leaders began prioritizing ending chronic homelessness, county housing division assistant administrator Eric Collins-Dyke said.
Service providers previously expected clients to prove sobriety or resolve legal issues themselves, Collins-Dyke said. But providers realized that living on the streets worsened those problems.
The Housing First program launched with $1 million in funding from the Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division and still relies on this, as well as money from county taxes. Their model is driven by three homeless outreach teams and a number of other volunteer groups, which contact clients and put them on a waitlist for Section 8 housing, Collins-Dyke said.
The teams work with landlords to find an available apartment and help their client move in. Collins-Dyke said they’ve had to build trust with clients and the community to show the program is worth investing in.
“We firmly believe that housing is a human right,” Collins-Dyke said. “We also know there are other perspectives and needs and dynamics in the community. And while we need to honor that too, we also need to stay true to this is what we believe.”
What Expanded Street Outreach Could Mean
Todd Stone, the Ward 4 councilmember and a cosponsor of Stonecipher’s ordinances, said he was pleased to see them struck. He said he likes to see the city address homelessness through different strategies, so he’d support funding street outreach.
“Like everything, you kind of start off small and then you show, ‘Hey, look what they’re accomplishing.’ And then it becomes a matter of, ‘All right, let’s expand it,’” Stone said.
Oklahoma Watch requested an interview with Stonecipher multiple times over the phone, via email and in person but efforts to interview him were unsuccessful.
Amy Warne, one of the candidates running against Stonecipher in the Feb. 14 election, attended the strategy meeting at Mayflower and gave public comment at the Nov. 22 city council meeting. Warne said having more street outreach teams would be a benefit for everyone as they’re trained in de-escalation.
Ward 2 councilmember James Cooper said he believes this is the “true renaissance moment” for Oklahoma City. He introduced an ordinance in 2020 focused on six areas of reform for the Oklahoma City Police Department, including homelessness outreach and mental health response.
Cooper said the creation of a city task force to find solutions to homelessness and the approval of $55.7 million of MAPS 4 funding to go toward affordable housing indicate new priorities.
“It is the first time in the city’s history that it’s saying ‘Our people’s mental health matters, housing people matters, helping people heal from traumas matter,’” Cooper said. “And the choice now faces us. Do you let people drag us back to the old ways that aren’t working or do you truly move us forward into a place of enlightenment?”