A rise in violence directed at homeless people – perhaps the most in decades – is creating a great deal of anxiety among the homeless, according to the Rev. Steve Whitaker, director of John 3:16 Mission.
“There has been a lot of violence going on in and around and among the homeless,” Whitaker said in a radio interview on Tulsa Beacon Weekend on KCFO AM970. “A lot of people have been paying attention to the news and in the last couple of weeks and saw that there was some man who evidently had some reason to hate to hate the homeless. He beat one man with a pipe and drove around the Mission a couple of times. There were two people sleeping on the sidewalk and he drove up on the sidewalk right by the mission and ran over them, hitting three and killing one. And later on that day, he hit another.
“It’s hard to quantify if there is a pattern going on but there have been more rapes and more violence in my decades of experience in John 3:16 Mission than I can ever recall.”
These attacks on the sidewalks don’t seem to be fueled by racial hatred or any apparent motivation, Whitaker said. Whitaker said the suspect’s Facebook page indicated that he hated the homeless.
“We are not sure what any of that means,” Whitaker said. “We just know that it struck a chord with people across this town. And the homeless, who don’t have our assets and our ability, and a lot of times because of malnutrition or because of their circumstances, have a reason to fear things and are all rattled even though the man has been caught.
“I think that relatively speaking, it’s been a loss of innocence for our homeless.”
Jeremy Thacker of Owasso has been charged with first-degree murder and other charges in the death of Shawn Birdo, who was run over and killed by a pickup truck as he slept under the I-244 overpass on North Cheyenne Avenue Downtown. Two other homeless people were injured under the underpass in the same incident. People think Thacker also ran over a woman’s legs at a QuikTrip at 15th Street and Denver Avenue and attacked a sleeping homeless man with a pipe. Reports say that Birdo was not actually homeless but was sleeping at the overpass to keep a watch over his girlfriend, who is homeless.
Whitaker said one conclusion from the 9/11 Commission concerning the failure to recognize the idea of a terrorist hijacking a plane and flying into a building was “a lack of imagination.”
“They failed to imagine that somebody would have that kind of evil in their hearts,” Whitaker said. “And I would guess that we had that same thing going on. We never imagined that somebody would hate the homeless. And that they would choose to take their vehicle and run them over.
“It’s been rough the past couple of weeks.”
Knowing that someone might want to kill you produces anxiety for the homeless but it would for anybody, Whitaker said.
“Some of the language that I hear is if not borderline absurd but the idea that when someone is rendered homeless, that they are less than a person,” Whitaker said. “The truth of the matter is they are just like us. They are on the same journey we are on.
“Some have addictions. A few have mental illness. The rest of them are just regular people. It becomes almost a comedy of one tragedy after another tragedy. The lost their job. They got sick. They couldn’t pay for their house. Their wife left them.
“And then you see this guy walking in the doors of John 3:16 Mission 90 day later a scarecrow. He has been broken by the world. He is not mentally ill. Not addicted. Just beat up by the world. Abandoned by family and friends. They have been abandoned by family and friends – people they should have been able to count on.”
Donations have slowed
After the devastation in South Texas due to Hurricane Harvey and the destruction in Florida by Hurricane Irma, Whitaker said there is a concern that outpouring of charity for those situations might cause a dip to local Christian nonprofits. And that could be worrisome as Tulsa approaches the Thanksgiving and Christmas season, when John 3:16 Mission gets half of its funding in the final quarter of the year.
“Anytime there has been a major event, all the way back to Katrina and now Houston and Florida, there is what we call the ‘hurricane effect’ or ‘earthquake effect’ where funds are diverted,” Whitaker said. “People only have so much discretionary funds to give. And a lot of times they feel moved to give to what’s going on down in other areas. Of course, we understand that.
“We do take a hit in our pocketbook and we are feeling it right now”
Whitaker said churches experience a “gift shift” when regular givers take from their regular contributions to give to a special project, like a building fund.
Needs are growing
In Tulsa, John 3:16 Mission constantly is facing with more needy people.
“It never has stopped growing,” Whitaker said. “I have been here 28 years. At John 3:16, when I got here, there were four employees – I was the fourth employee. It was a small organization and the needs grew and the needs grew.
“Some organizations grow because they can. We have been very careful not to grow because when the Christian rescue mission has to grow, that really says we’ve got a problem. Do we really have that many homeless? Do we really substantiate those numbers?
“The answer has been, as we have grown, is the need to help homeless women.”
Whitaker said crime against homeless women has skyrocketed. In September, a woman was raped and stabbed. Had a passerby not stopped to help her, she would have died in the street.
“We’ve got a problem in our own community,” Whitaker said. “I am going to do whatever I have to do to provide 12 more beds for homeless women this year before January 1.”
Whitaker will soon put out a public request for turkeys and other food that the mission supplies to needy families before Thanksgiving and Christmas. Under the Sun Garden Centers at 5147 S. Harvard Ave. and 8998 S. Sheridan Road have helped collect turkeys for the John 3:16 Mission for the past 10 years.
Whitaker said he sees three categories of homeless people. One is those who are legitimately homeless who don’t want to go back home but they want out. Another group are those who are temporarily homeless and there are street people. And finally, there are panhandlers, who stand at busy intersections and ask for money from motorists.
“Please don’t give money to panhandlers, and if you need to know more, call me personally,” Whitaker said. “I will help you understand that the metrics are just not there. They just are not who they are portraying themselves to be.”