Tulsa’s homeless population growing

December 5, 2013

If the federal government is correct, the homeless population of Tulsa has grown by more than 11 percent in the last three years.

The Rev. Steve Whitaker, executive director of  John 3:16 Mission in Tulsa, said homelessness is definitely on the rise. During Thanksgiving, the mission helped a record number of homeless people and ran out of shelter for those who needed a place to stay.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) reported that Tulsa had 905 homeless residents in 2010 but that number has jumped to 1008 this year – an increase of 11 percent.

In the entire state, HUD said the number of homeless has dropped 15 percent, from 5,229 in 2010 to 4,408 this year. In Oklahoma City, that figure has risen 20 percent from 1,128 in 2010 to 1,362 in 2013.

HUD claims local homeless housing and service providers in Oklahoma reported that the number of sheltered and unsheltered persons overall decreased by 821 individuals since 2010.

Whitaker called that statistic “sheer nonsense.”

“Reports from shelters all over the state are reflecting increases in homelessness,” said Whitaker. “All rescue mission numbers I have seen are up.”

The HUD study claims that the national estimate of homelessness has decreased in every major subpopulation and category in that three-year period. HUD’s 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress asserts significant and measureable progress to reduce the scale of long-term or ‘chronic’ homelessness as well as homelessness experienced by veterans and families.

“We’re making real and significant progress to reduce homelessness in this country and now is not the time to retreat from doing what we know works,” said HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan.  “If we’re going to end homelessness as we know it, we need a continued bipartisan commitment from Congress to break the cycle trapping our most vulnerable citizens between living in a shelter or a life on the streets.  I understand these are tough budget times but these are proven strategies that are making a real difference.  We simply can’t balance our budget on the backs of those living on the margins.”

To the contrary, Whitaker said the HUD housing programs have contributed to growing numbers of homeless.

“The Rapid Re-Housing Program was a failure and contributed to homelessness,” Whitaker said. “In fact, the homeless numbers are way up in New York City.”

Nearly 20 percent of homeless people were counted in either Los Angeles (nine percent of total or 53,798) or New York City (11 percent of total or 64,060).  Los Angeles experienced the largest increase among major cities, reporting 11,445 more homeless people (or 27 percent) in 2013 compared to 2012. New York City reported 7,388 more homeless people (or 13 percent).

HUD’s annual ‘point-in-time’ estimates measure the scope of homelessness on a single night in January of each year.  Based on data reported by more than 3,000 cities and counties, last January’s one-night estimate reveals an eight percent drop in homelessness among veterans and a seven percent reduction among those experiencing long-term or chronic homelessness.

During one night in late January of 2013, local planning organizations or “Continuums of Care” across the nation and in Oklahoma conducted a one-night count of their sheltered and unsheltered homeless populations.

HUD research claims that for those who have been homeless the longest, often living on our streets for years at a time, permanent supportive housing – housing coupled with supportive services to address mental illness, substance addiction, and other challenges – not only ends homelessness for these individuals, but also saves the taxpayer money by interrupting a costly cycle of emergency room visits, detoxes and jail terms.

Since 2008, a total of 58,250 rental vouchers have been awarded and 43,371 formerly homeless veterans are currently in homes of their own because of HUD.

Whitaker said it is frustrating for his mission to try to expand its help to the homeless.

“When we try to expand our facilities, people who say they want to help us help the homeless take us to court to stop us,” Whitaker said. “The result is just more homeless people sleeping under bridges.”