Homelessness is something that has been around for years.
Finding solutions to the problem is no easy feat – eradicating homelessness completely is virtually impossible.
For many citizens, the only time we come face to face with those facing the situation was likely when traveling to a large city.
In the 2022 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress, these key findings were noted:
• On a single night in 2022, roughly 582,500 people were experiencing homelessness in the United States. Six in ten (60 percent) were staying in sheltered locations – emergency shelters, safe havens, or transitional housing programs – and four in ten (40 percent) were in unsheltered locations such as on the street, in abandoned buildings, or in other places not suitable for human habitation.
• There continues to be an overrepresentation of people who identify as Black, African American, or African, as well as indigenous people (including Native Americans and Pacific Islanders) among the population experiencing homelessness compared to the U.S. population. People who identify as Black made up just 12 percent of the total U.S. population but comprised 37 percent of all people experiencing homelessness and 50 percent of people experiencing homelessness as members of families with children. Homelessness slightly increased nationwide.
• Between 2020 and 2022, the overall number of people experiencing homelessness increased by less than one percent (1,996 people). This increase reflects a three percent increase in people experiencing unsheltered homelessness, which was offset by a two percent decline in people staying in sheltered locations. However, between 2021 and 2022, sheltered homelessness increased by seven percent, or 22,504 people.
— The Local Angle
Oklahoma’s largest cities, Tulsa and Oklahoma City, have dealt with the homeless population for many years, with numerous agencies and organizations ready to assist.
However, in a ‘trickle- down’ effect, smaller cities and towns, including Okmulgee and Henryetta, contend with a rising number of people without a home.
The questions that arise from the situation are:
• Who are they?
• Where are they from – whether in the state or out-of-state?
• Why and how did they end up in Okmulgee County?
• What assistance do they need, and if they wish to change the situation they are in?
City leaders including law enforcement and city council members are working to see what can be done to address the issues.
Chief Joe Prentice shared some of the work that has been going on in his department and with city leaders in order to assess, and then hopefully move forward.
“I know that the homeless population has exploded and we’ve been behind the curve trying to figure out how to deal with it,” Chief Prentice.
The chief stated he, along with Captain James Ables, has been meeting with the city manager, mayor, and a member of the city council to address the issues.
Prentice and Ables devised a plan and created a form to assist in their work. Along with training of all officers, the contact form now in use holds a checklist of things to learn about the homeless citizen and then work on giving assistance, if needed or desired.
“We came up with this contact form to identify persons and gather their statistical information and delve into how they ended up here and why,” the chief said.
Other questions asked include where they’re originally from, whether they intend to stay or would like to leave, if help was available.
Adding to the problem, Prentice said, is “we’re finding out agencies – and not just law enforcement, but including law enforcement agencies bringing people from other counties to our homeless shelter and dropping them off. Well, what happens is, either they’re full; the person doesn’t have ID or doesn’t meet some criteria they have and they tell him, ‘We can’t take you’ … And the people that brought them are gone.”
Okmulgee County Homeless Shelter Executive Director Brenda Brewer stated that just last week, an out-ofcounty law enforcement agency brought a person with no ties to the community to the shelter and dropped off the elderly female – all without checking or calling first to ensure there was room.
However, this incident was unique in that it wasn’t because of their being no room – it was due to the fact that the potential client could not walk up the stairs, where all the sleeping quarters are located.
“And they just left,” Brewer said. “I wish that we had a larger, more efficient facility. Last week, we had over 35 clients.” On Monday, there were 28 clients, including several families.
Brewer also reiterated to the community that the OCHS “does not bus in clients to the shelter from other places. We don’t even have a means to transport our clients that we have … We use our personal vehicles to take our clients to appointments or interviews, anything related to helping to return to normal, everyday life.”
Chief Prentice also stated he had been told that a large number of people released from a mental ward from a hospital a couple of counties away, had been dropped off.
“That I can’t confirm. But we’re getting a lot of homeless people here that are not from here,” the chief said.
Prentice stated his department then works to identify: 1. Who the person is and their statistical information 2. Military or veteran 3. Tribal citizens 4. Receiving assistance from any agency such as DHS or CREOKS Among the challenges for law enforcement is being able to locate their camps, or where they are living at the moment, since many tend to move around to various locations.
When making contact with the individuals, officers try to determine how long they have been homeless, and even the reason why they are in that situation.
“What were the specific circumstances that caused you to become homeless,” the chief said, “because a large portion of these people are homeless by choice. Now you run into some that, you know, lost their job, went through a divorce whatever, but by and large, a lot of these people are homeless because they want to be.
“Any concerns they want to share with law enforcement? What led or brought you to Okmulgee? What city and state were you previously living in? Do you plan to stay in the area? Do you want to go somewhere else? Now, that’s a very important question. And the next one is even more important. If help or transportation is available, would you accept it?” Prentice said.
— What’s Being Done So Far?
After a complaint about the homeless situation by a local business owner, Prentice learned one of the citizens wanted to return to their home state, but had no way to get there.
A suggestion was made that if the person was really wanting to leave, perhaps they could get a bus ticket and transportation to the station. That owner then wrote out a check, and the person was then able to return to his hometown.
The light bulb came on.
Prentice stated that discussions followed and a plan was put into motion on creating an account with funds (donated or otherwise) that would be used to pay for transportation for a homeless person wishing to leave the area. Transportation would be arranged locally to get the person to the station. Details are still being worked out, but this first step helps those who may not be here in Okmulgee County on their own accord.
However, Prentice acknowledged that some may take advantage of the offer, but there are many that are homeless by choice. Also, the encampments for the homeless tend to move around the area, making it hard to determine where that person is.
— How Many Homeless Are in the Area?
“So, the short answer is I don’t know how many we have,” Chief Prentice said. “We have a large homeless population and it seems to be growing… And I think some of it is due to people being dropped off at the homeless shelter, and for whatever reason don’t qualify to stay there, or they’re full and can’t take anybody.”
— See Part 2 in Friday’s edition of the Okmulgee Times.