Max Murphy tries to be in line by 7 a.m., waiting for a green van carrying the promise of a day’s work and a $65 paycheck.

As a bonus, those who make it onto the van gain assistance with housing and finding a permanent job, things Murphy, 38, has lacked since arriving from Los Angeles to meet family about a year ago.

But the van has only eight seats. Murphy has made it onboard only once, spending the day cleaning up city parks for pay he could split with his mother on toilet paper and other supplies food stamps don’t cover.

He’s stood at pickup spots throughout the city, watching as the van pulled away without him more times than he can count.

“I’m still going to try,” said Murphy, who often sleeps anywhere that feels safe for the night. “It’s not the end of the world. They only own so many resources, and in this case, it’s one van.”

A Better Way is a program operated by the Mental Health Association Oklahoma that offers work and assistance to homeless and out-of-work residents in Oklahoma’s two biggest metros, both of which have introduced laws criminalizing panhandling. Though Oklahoma City and Tulsa fund the program with public dollars, Murphy’s experience is not an outlier.

With only one van operating three days a week in each city, there are more people seeking A Better Way than funding and resources can support.

Case manager Trudi Islas, employment specialist Genaro Pratcher and van driver Steven Blaser make up the A Better Way team in Oklahoma City. Islas ran a sober living home in Oklahoma City before joining the Mental Health Association. Pratcher worked in mental health services for 15 years. Both say being a part of changing clients’ lives is addictive. 

Christopher Oaks, (second from left) a driver for A Better Way, greeted 14 people who waited for one of eight seats on a van that would take them to a work site on a frigid morning in December 2022. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

“A lot of these people have lost any hope,” Islas said. “And when they get that back, it changes their whole appearance. Their eyes are lit up, their skin is glowing. They have a smile on their face, maybe for the first time in a long time, and it’s because they have seen some results.”

The van drops off A Better Way participants interested in finding long-term work at the Mental Health Association office after their shifts. There, Islas helps identify and address their barriers to employment and housing, like not having a Social Security card or not being enrolled for food stamps.

Once clients have a Social Security card, they’re considered employable and are referred to Pratcher. He helps them build an employment profile based on the types of work they’re interested in. They then work together to fill out applications or put together resumes. 

Ervin Tester picks up garbage on a frigid December 2022 morning at Washington Park in Oklahoma City as part of A Better Way’s program. Tester said his $65 paycheck will help pay off a loan he took out for living expenses. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

Many participants in A Better Way have been the targets of laws aimed at panhandling and homelessness. In 2015, the Oklahoma City council passed an ordinance that banned sitting, standing or staying on certain medians for any reason. Though a federal appeals court ruled the ordinance to be unconstitutional, city leaders spent almost $1 million in taxpayer dollars unsuccessfully appealing the decision to the Supreme Court.  

The Tulsa city council passed a similar ordinance in 2017, revising it after the Oklahoma City decision. Tulsa leaders started the A Better Way program the following year, based on a program in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The Oklahoma City program launched in September 2021.

Ward 4 councilmember Todd Stone was elected in 2017 and was part of Oklahoma City’s debate on whether to appeal the federal court’s decision. 

Stone said he voted to appeal because he saw the ordinance as a safety measure, a decision he regrets. Directing the $1 million to some of the city’s organizations addressing homelessness, like A Better Way, instead of using it on legal fees would have been a definite benefit, Stone said. 

Despite only having one van in each city, the program isn’t receiving a bigger budget from either local government for the next fiscal year. Oklahoma City contributed about $271,000 this year. City officials are looking for partners to help offset operating costs next year,  city spokeswoman Kristy Yager said. 

Tulsa contributed $200,000 this fiscal year with plans for the same amount for 2024, said Carson Colvin, a spokesman for the city.

Islas said the limited resources have forced her team to leave behind would-be participants almost every day, amounting to close to 1,000 people in 2022. She said the original purpose of the program was to scour the city for people who panhandle, but demand has outgrown that ambition. 

Arzell Gaddis, 49, knows what it’s like to struggle to participate. As Gaddis helped bag leaves in Washington Park, about a mile from the pickup point, he said he was a part of the program three times in 2021. As word of mouth spread, he noticed it becoming harder to join. 

“Maybe they can get a bigger contract or bigger program to where more people can participate in it if they really need the money,” Gaddis said.

After failing to get a spot in a daily work program that assists out-of-work and homeless Oklahomans, Max Murphy walked across the street to visit his mother at her nearby apartment complex. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

Ari Fife is a Report for America corps member who covers race and equity issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact her at (405) 517-2847 or Follow her on Twitter at @arriifife.

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