Logan Whitten, general studies major, flies a drone as part of AVI 1313, Intro to UAS Operations, in the Rose State College mall. (Photo by Michael Palacios)
By Michael Palacios and Zak Royka
Photo Editor and Website Editor
Thanks to Rose State College, Oklahoma’s investment in drones is flying further with the introduction of a new 16-week drone course.
The course provides an introduction to small unmanned aircraft system operations, safety considerations, regulatory requirements and more. At the end of the course, students will be prepared to take the Federal Aviation Administration’s unmanned aircraft general knowledge test and earn their remote pilot [part 107] certificates.
Ryan Stoddard, Ph.D., the dean of the engineering and sciences division at Rose State College, is the instructor for the course. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy and former naval aviator, he holds a doctorate in mechanical engineering from Virginia Tech.
“A small unmanned aircraft system is useful as a tool because it is an affordable, highly maneuverable, flying HD camera connected to an accurate GPS,” he said. “This makes it valuable for photography, videography, inspections and photogrammetry (mapping) in industries such as construction, agriculture, utilities, surveying, public safety, real estate and marketing.” Sen. Nathan Dahm, R-Broken Arrow, has also had drones on the brain.
In an effort to promote transparency, Dahm introduced Senate Bill 36, which would make police drone footage accessible through Oklahoma’s Open Records Act if passed. “The law says that bodycam footage and dashcam footage are subject to (the Open Records Act), but drone footage is not,” he said. “Government in general doesn’t like transparency and accountability, whether it’s law enforcement or any other entity of government.”
Drones have been a hot topic in government for several years. In 2022, Gov. Kevin Stitt signed House Bill 3171, which classified the unlawful use of drones as a misdemeanor offense. Drones are small, hard to trace and cheap to operate. This cocktail of features makes them the perfect platform for bad actors to use for any number of purposes.
For those interested in drones as a hobby, there are multiple ways to inexpensively get involved. Many small aviation clubs dot the state, and many various entry-level drones sell for under $100. However, by law, all recreational flyers must hold a Recreational UAS Safety Test certificate, which is attained by passing an aeronautical knowledge and safety test. Recreational flyers must also have an adequate understanding of flying requirements. If requested by law enforcement or FAA personnel. The TRUST test is free to take and can be found on the FAA website.
The drone industry in Oklahoma is getting noticed. In 2022, George Mason University ranked Oklahoma No. 1 in drone commerce readiness. With wide open skies and the FAA facilities at the heart of the state, Oklahoma is more than prepared to take on the economic changes that the drone market brings.
For states that welcome aerial commerce, adapting to mainstream drone usage could rapidly change the economy and revolutionize many industries. Various home delivery services such as FedEx and UPS have already tested drones for commercial use, but there are also potential agricultural and medical applications on the horizon. Commonly used for photography, land surveying and geo-mapping, drones are also used extensively in the film industry to get previously cost-prohibitive aerial shots.
The growing interest in drones combined with the up-and-coming film industry in Oklahoma have spawned several dedicated drone film companies and even a drone film festival. Already in its third year, the Thunderbird Drone Film Festival is the first of its kind in Oklahoma. The two-day festival is in Woodward and involves an aerial scavenger hunt, an obstacle course and awards show.
In 15 years, drones have gone from a curiosity to a tool with practical application. The rapid advancement in lithium-ion batteries and the increased availability of small microprocessors have played a large role in this booming industry. Oklahoma has become a hotbed for aerial technology innovation largely due to the influence of Tinker Air Force Base and the significant aerospace presence in the state.
To further cement Oklahoma’s aerospace reputation, Sen. John Haste, R-Broken Arrow, and Rep. Kevin Wallace, R-Wellston, recently coauthored Senate Bill 942, which would create the Oklahoma Aircraft Engine Testing Development Grant Program to advance aerospace research.
Students interested in Rose State’s introductory drone course can enroll for the fall 2023 semester beginning March 27.
Kirsten Myers, fine arts major, practices drone setup. (Photo by Michael Palacios)
Several individuals gather in front of OKC’s City Rescue Mission. (Photo by Michael Palacios)
By Katrina Crumbacher and Valerie Scott
Editor in Chief and Assistant Editor
Sitting on the curb, Johnson Jackson, 63, waits for City Care’s Night Shelter to open. Bundled in layers with gloves and a beanie, it is 40 degrees outside, the wind is blowing, but the doors won’t open for another 45 minutes.
It is not his first time at the night shelter, but he is not alone. Countless others have also come to find a bed for the night. If those living on the streets can arrive early enough or manage to reserve a bed ahead of time, they can look forward to a bed and warm shower.
But with only 150 beds, it’s first come, first served, and the shelter is full every night.
Before being homeless, Jackson was living the American Dream. He had a house and a long-lasting marriage, raised children and even worked long enough to earn retirement–the average joe.
Raised by his grandmother, Jackson resolved to learn how to fix things around the house to alleviate the financial burden on his grandmother who was on a fixed income.
“I wanted to know how to do everything,” he said. “I wanted to be ‘the man,’ and I am.”
Eventually, he became the building manager at the old Bank One building in downtown Oklahoma City. Over the course of his career, he worked for furniture companies, the Salvation Army and even the Oklahoma City Housing Authority for awhile as an independent contractor.
Then his life came to a screeching halt.
His wife of 18 years kicked him out, and just like that he was left with no home and no car. Just the shirt on his back, his wallet and the depression that followed him as he left his life behind.
“I got depressed and started drinking,” he said. “I’ve had money and plenty of opportunities to get a place, but I never have. I never applied myself. Mentally, I was still torn up about the relationship, and I was depressed. I allowed myself to slip deeper into depression and just kind of gave up.”
Not long after, his wallet was stolen. His ID, cash, debit and credit cards? Gone.
“I went and had all the stuff canceled, then two weeks later, someone supposedly walks up to the front desk and hands them my wallet,” he said. “They don’t know who it is. They can’t run the camera back. ‘Oh Lord, it just ain’t working right today.’ Whatever. They don’t want me to know who it was.”
He has also had clothes, shoes and other things stolen.
“They steal from you,” he said. “Man, I’ve had four or five nice $500-600 coats stolen from me here. Brand spanking new Polo boots, never touched the dirt, never even touched the ground? Stolen.”
Theft isn’t the only thing lurking in the shadows. Substance abuse, alcoholism and mental illness run rampant among the homeless population.
“A lot of them are schizophrenic,” Jackson said. “That guy that just walked by? He’s talking to himself. You don’t see anybody with him, do you? They’re talking to themselves. They’re schizophrenic, bipolar, and they’re doing drugs.”
The National Institute of Mental Health estimates between 0.25% and 0.64% of Americans suffer from schizophrenia and related psychotic disorders. However, estimates are even higher among the homeless community. Studies show about 20% or more homeless people suffer from some form of psychosis.
“When the long-term psychiatric hospitals closed in the ‘80s, the idea was we wanted to give these people a dignified life, to live in a community or with their families, go to the grocery store, the things that people do,” said Tom Knudsen, director of housing navigation at City Care. “That looked good on paper, but the community was not ready for them. For the ones that do not have any family, this results in them on the street.”
Substance abuse is just as prevalent as mental illness among the homeless community. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reports nearly 16% of homeless people suffer from chronic substance abuse.
“Substance use and mental illness are usually always in the picture somewhere,” he said. “At the day shelter, we’re seeing a variety of people in the throes of their addiction. We’ve got a number of in-patient recovery programs. If somebody is trying to detox from substance use, maybe they need a bed at Catalyst Behavioral Services or a sober living more-structured 30-day, 60-day, 90-day situation.”
City Care’s mission is a lengthy one. Its mission first started with a day shelter, which is now run by The Homeless Alliance.
“The day shelter is a place where they can come in the daytime,” he said. “They get showers. They get computer access. They get meals.”
Beyond helping those afflicted by addiction, City Care also offers case management to help get people off the streets through Section 8 housing vouchers.
Section 8 is a federal program designed to assist very low-income families, the elderly and the disabled in finding affordable housing. Upon approval, the housing voucher covers a portion of the rent and is paid directly to landlords on behalf of the participating individual or family.
However, there is a waitlist, and it may take two months, a year or longer to get approved.
“Let’s say somebody has applied for Section 8, and we have an expedite that we can get on a Section 8 housing voucher. There’s a small number of vouchers they prioritize for people who are homeless,” Knudsen said. “For someone that is working a minimum wage job or is on a fixed income or supplemental security income, that is really the only way you can sustain the cost of living in a standard apartment.”
The average rent for regular housing is $11,400 per year. For the elderly, it costs an average of $4,500 a month to live in an assisted living facility, according to the American Seniors Housing Association. That is $54,000 per year.
Homelessness can happen to anyone. As the recession lingers, more and more people are facing budget cuts, layoffs, increasing inflation and skyrocketing rent.
A recent analysis by Zillow shows rent in Oklahoma City has increased by 5.8% since November 2021, and paying an extra $100 per month adds up quickly. For those already straddling the poverty line, paying an extra $1,200 every year can be enough to send them over the edge.
“If you’re trying to rent a one-bedroom unit and the price is $500 a month, a landlord would want to see that you make three times more of that price just so they know you’re not going to get behind,” he said. “That’s all fine and good, but if you’re talking about someone who’s working at minimum wage, makes $8 an hour and probably clears only $1,100-1,200 a month if that, there is no way they can clear that bar.”
A detrimental injury, a divorce, a death in the family, a loss of career—a couple slips in the rent, and eviction is right around the corner. A downward spiral may be only a tragedy away.
“Homelessness is complex,” he said. “It’s more than just four walls and a roof. I think, at the bottom of it, is a catastrophic loss of family and loss of relationship. If you’ve never had anybody that believes in you, be it a mom, dad, family member, mentor, leader or whatever, then it’s hard to make good decisions.”
Throughout the winter, homeless people find themselves in increasingly colder and harsher conditions. Every year, City Care opens an emergency cold weather shelter to house as many homeless as possible through the freezing nights.
“It’s an overflow shelter when all the other shelters are full during the winter,” he said. “What happens is all the other shelters will lift their admission criteria and let anybody come get a bed to get out of the winter. When they’re full, we need an overflow space.”
While every race, ethnicity and gender can be found amongst the homeless, HUD reports that white and Black people are equally affected nationally.
“I would say that the population we serve is probably the least segregated in terms of ethnic background and cultural background,” Knudsen said. “Segregated from the rest of society? Yes. But within this group, you see all kinds of people, all kinds of different stories, all kinds of different backgrounds. Your stereotypes start to dissolve really quickly.”
In an effort to address homelessness, 48 states have enacted at least one law restricting behaviors of people experiencing homelessness, according to a recent study by the National Homelessness Law Center. These laws prohibit a variety of homeless-related actions including, but not limited to, camping in particular public places, sleeping in cars and vagrancy.
In 2021, Texas lawmakers passed House Bill 1925, which would rescind state funding and support from any local entity that “prohibits or discourages enforcement of any public camping ban.”
After the law was signed, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton sent a joint letter to the Texas Association of Counties, the Texas Municipal League and cities across the state to remind them of their duty to enforce the ban on camping in public places.
"Local entities like yours should uphold the rule of law by enforcing this public camping ban,” the letter read. “In the coming months, we will be monitoring local entities across Texas to ensure compliance with House Bill 1925. We trust that you will begin enforcing the public camping ban in good faith. Doing so will achieve our shared goal of delivering improved services for the homeless and safer communities for everyone.”
As part of their continuing efforts, Texas also contributed over $358 million to local entities to help the homeless find housing and shelter.
In Oklahoma City, City Care has discussed opening a secondary shelter, but Knudsen said it is not going to solve the problem.
“There’s talk of another shelter, but honestly, building a shelter is a Band-Aid,” he said. “Homelessness is a community issue, and it deserves a community response. In some way, I think building another shelter lets the community off the hook.”
Knudsen said he thinks a more holistic approach is necessary to solving homelessness.
“You can take a hard-line approach of criminalizing poverty or criminalizing addiction or arresting people who are panhandling or whatever, but all that really does is get it out of sight, out of mind, so I don’t have to look at it,” he said. “Let’s say we fund more shelters or more social programs. It almost creates an incentive for people to come, and it makes the problem more visible. On both sides of the coin, you’re not really fixing the problem. At the end of the day, it has to start in the hearts and the minds and the attitudes of people.”
Each year, Oklahoma City takes one day and counts and surveys people experiencing homelessness. In 2022, there were a total of 1,339 “countable” homeless people. The Point in Time count found that within the homeless community, nearly 10% are veterans, 16% are members of families with children and 20% are youth age 24 or younger.
After living in the inner city and constantly seeing what homeless people are up against, Knudsen said he realized he wanted to help those most at risk.
“Whatever I wanted to do in life, I wanted to give myself to working with people on the margins, trying to figure out what it looks like to ‘re-neighbor’ the hood if you will,” he said. “In their world, yeah, it’s not the healthiest sense of community, but they know each other. They know each other on the street. They look out for each other.”
Even those who have a place to live can still be missing a sense of community.
“People in our world are relationally bankrupt,” he said. “We could go to work and sit in a cubicle for eight hours a day, drive in our cars to work 45 minutes in one direction, go home to a gated community and never have to see or talk to anybody.”
Knudsen said the solution to homelessness might not come in our lifetime.
“When we decide ‘You know what? Nobody should be without a home. We’re not okay with that,’ I think the only way that’s going to start is not through more programs or not even more housing, as much as we need those things,” he said. “It’s through the avenue of relationship and building and sustaining relationships with people on the margins to the point where hearts, minds and attitudes change and the way we think about homelessness changes.”
In a couple years, Jackson said he wants his own place, a nice car and hopefully a wife.
“You never really know what another person’s story is unless you ask them,” he said.
Business is Booming
Construction work on the new Mathis Home store in MWC is nearly complete. (Photo by Valerie Scott)
By Valerie Scott
In spite of the challenges posed by the pandemic, Midwest City has continued to experience economic growth in recent years.
Several new businesses have moved to Midwest City. The Sooner Rose Shopping and Entertainment Center on Southeast 15th Street is booming with new businesses and restaurants. Center Marketplace, which neighbors Rose State College, has flourished despite the challenges faced by the pandemic. Midwest City has since welcomed a Smoothie King, Teriyaki Madness, Dutch Bros., Nashbird and The Baked Bear, along with a few other popular food destinations.
Recently, Mathis Home started construction in Town Center Plaza. The building was formerly occupied by JCPenney, which declared bankruptcy in July 2022. La-Z-Boy and Ashley Furniture will also be located inside the store. Mathis Home is expected to open in April, but as inflation rates rise, the building process could slow down.
The Midwest City Beacon reported that Mathis Home is expected to bring in 70 jobs and welcome an estimated 115,000 new customers to Town Center Plaza.
The pandemic proved to be taxing for citizens, business owners, face-to-face employees and the economy as a whole. In 2022, some 3 million fewer people nationwide are employed than before the pandemic, though steady progress has been made, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
With such a drastic economic blow, it has taken time to recover within households and on a business level. However, when comparing the pandemic recession to recessions of the past, the economy has been cut deeper by the pandemic but is recovering faster than during the Great Recession, as seen in the CBPP’s breakdown of U.S Bureau of Economic Analysis data.
Even though America faced a worse economic downturn than in previous years, a clear path to recovery was made considerably faster than with recessions in recent history. Oklahoma alone has regained 60.8% of its gross domestic product since the pandemic, according to the Oklahoma Department of Commerce.
Oklahoma’s economic growth is among the highest in the country, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. From the second to the third quarter, the state’s GDP grew at an annual rate of 5.5%, leaving Alaska and Texas in the lead with over 8% growth.
“With the state’s recent increase in jobs and massive population gains coupled with these GDP increases, Oklahoma is on an exciting trajectory,” said Chad Mariska, Oklahoma’s secretary of commerce and workforce development, according to the Oklahoma Department of Commerce’s website.
It is safe to say that Midwest City is showing signs of Oklahoma’s development. Sooner Rose on Southeast 15th Street is not the only shopping center with a booming business front. Town Center Plaza has recently welcomed a Tacos 4 Life and a Carter’s, a children’s clothing store.
However, Town Center Plaza has hit quite a large bump. Dick’s Sporting Goods closed in December 2022 because of a lease disagreement, according to sources quoted by The Midwest City Beacon. The biggest challenge posed will be finding a store large enough to fill the 50,000 square-foot building. The store stopped carrying hunting gear, guns and ammunition in 2020. According to The Midwest City Beacon, this could have led to a loss of profit for the company at this location.
Overall, Midwest City has seen a boom in vacant buildings being filled. As inflation continues to increase construction costs, Midwest City can expect to see fewer new builds but will continue to fill empty spaces with new businesses.
Many students across Oklahoma attend Boys & Girls Clubs to participate in their numerous after-school programs. (Courtesy of The Boys & Girls Club of Oklahoma County)
By Katrina Crumbacher
and Valerie Scott
Any hopes of having mobile Boys & Girls Club experiences in rural Oklahoma by the end of the year were dashed as the legislature’s special session adjourned Friday, Oct. 14.
The Boys & Girls Clubs of Oklahoma was just one nonprofit of 10 that were set to receive American Rescue Plan Act funding in the latest round of pandemic relief appropriations. However, funding allocations were delayed when state lawmakers failed to reach a consensus regarding YWCA’s funding proposal.
The Boys & Girls Clubs of Oklahoma’s proposal requested $30.1 million to build out mobile clubs and for capital needs at their 96 locations across the state. The proposed mobile clubs would have brought specialized programs to areas where The Boys & Girls Clubs of Oklahoma do not have a physical presence.
“There are some schools and a lot of rural towns in the state of Oklahoma that don’t, for various reasons, have access to a club experience,” said Teena Belcik, the president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Oklahoma County. “[We] can come with a mobile club and bring all the academic support, mentoring, sports, arts and STEM opportunities. All of those would be beneficial in many of these areas that maybe don’t have or can’t support a full-time club, but when we’re on wheels, we can go.”
Even when schools are closed, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Oklahoma are open and ready to serve. However, the delay has stalled programs that were ready to hit the ground running.
The Boys & Girls Clubs of Oklahoma County recently piloted a reading recovery program for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. The program is designed to improve students’ reading level after the pandemic caused a widespread academic delay in learning.
“Everyone’s concerned about making sure all our kids succeed academically, but the pandemic didn’t do anybody any favors,” she said. “We were really excited to be able to implement that reading recovery program, but that’s part of the funding we were hoping to receive.”
The Boys & Girls Clubs of Oklahoma and the other nine nonprofits will now have to wait until the legislature’s next session in February 2023 to receive the $95.2 million in ARPA funding left on the table:
$25 million to the YMCA to expand the outside school hours childcare needs at facilities across the state
$30 million to Oasis Fresh Market to help support strong healthy communities by increasing poverty wrap-around services at locations to mitigate food deserts
$2.8 million to the YWCA to build one and two bedroom apartments to house youth aging out of foster care
$700,000 to the Parent and Child Center of Tulsa for two intervention programs to prevent child abuse in high-risk communities and better integrate fathers who live separately from their children
$1 million to The Spring for capital improvements to a facility that serves victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and sex trafficking
$2 million to the Family Safety Center to go toward their total need of $27 million for a new multipurpose community facility aimed at providing assistance to individuals impacted by domestic violence and sexual abuse
$30.1 million to The Boys & Girls Clubs of Oklahoma to build mobile clubs that would have specialized programming for areas where The Boys & Girls Club does not have a physical presence and for capital needs at their 96 locations
$3 million to Food on the Move to contribute toward their $11 million need for their first Food Hub, which will bring small/local farmers and independent sellers together to buy and sell products
$342,360 to Oklahoma Court Appointed Special Advocates to pay for background checks for new advocates and other related expenditures
$300,000 to the First Step Male Diversion program to fund a $1.1 million facility to house those currently going through the program
To ensure that ARPA funding is spent as proposed, the Legislature has arranged various levels of oversight. For the first time in the state’s history, Oklahoma is outsourcing a portion of the oversight responsibilities to 929 Strategies, a comprehensive consulting service that specializes in public policy advice, government relations and regulatory affairs.
“The legislature employees are working directly with 929 Strategies to make sure money is spent correctly. This group is unique because it is the first time the House and Senate have hired a consulting group to make sure we are complying with the rules,” said Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah. “The ARPA rules have changed several times, and Melissa Houston and her team at 929 Strategies will keep up with the changes.”
As mandated by the Legislature, the Office of Management and Enterprise Services will publish a weekly report of the status of all ARPA grant agreements to the Chairs of the Joint Committee on Pandemic Relief Funding and will make them available to the public. They will also publish a quarterly report of all expenditures of ARPA funds.
“Under the authority granted by the Legislature, OMES will primarily play the role of administrator in the distribution of ARPA funds,” said Caden Cleveland, the OMES director of legislative and public affairs in an emailed statement. “By this, I mean we will be working with each entity that the Legislature and the governor have decided shall receive ARPA dollars to ensure they have the correct budgetary and legal documentation in place before receiving the dollars. Once correct documentation is in place and ARPA dollars are distributed to these entities, we will continue working with them to make sure the expenditure of the funds are all meeting federal requirements for their use.”
According to Thompson, the previous mismanagement of pandemic relief funding, via the ClassWallet fiasco, has not been a contributing factor to the oversight of this round of pandemic relief money.
ClassWallet was hired by Oklahoma officials in August 2022 to distribute $17.3 million in emergency federal educational funds. The State of Oklahoma later filed a lawsuit against ClassWallet as it failed to ensure proper money management.
During the pandemic, ClassWallet distributed funding using the Stay in School grant, which provided $6,500 in tuition assistance, and the Bridge the Gap Digital Wallet, which provided $1,500 in grants to low-income families to buy educational items.
The Frontier and Oklahoma Watch performed a combined investigation of ClassWallet in May 2022. Records show a heavy amount of funding was spent on non-educational items such as TVs, Christmas trees, barbecue grills, smartphones and video game consoles all through the Bridge the Gap program.
Suggestions on how to spend Oklahoma’s ARPA funding were submitted through an online portal. The proposals came from a wide variety of industries, such as water management, workforce development, nonprofits and more.
On March 11, 2021, President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act, a federal stimulus bill to help economic recovery and public health after the COVID-19 pandemic.
The act allocated $350 billion in emergency funding to state, local, territorial and tribal governments. State governments and the District of Columbia received $195.3 billion.
Funding was sent out in two separate installments, with the exception of territories which received $4.5 billion in a single installment. Recipients must appropriate the funds by Dec. 31, 2024, and have it spent by Dec. 31, 2026.