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.
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