Homelessness in the Long Run: Why Oklahoma needs long-term solutions

This post was written by OK Policy summer intern Tyler Parette, a political science major at Oklahoma Christian University. Tyler will be studying international relations at the University of Oxford this fall.

“Did that man bother you?” asked the woman as  I was standing in line to get my morning coffee.

“What do you mean?” I replied.

“That man has been sitting outside asking people for money. Did he try to assault you?”

This question caught me off guard. It’s not every day that I am asked if I have been assaulted.

“No, he told me he was a veteran and I asked what branch he served in. He said Navy, so I asked what ship he served on and then he quit talking with me.”

Seemingly uninterested in the conversation that I had with the apparently homeless man outside the coffee shop, the woman walked back over to her table. Minutes later, she jumps up from her table and darts out the door to intercept another woman who was about to give the man outside some change.

“Do not give him anything! You,” pointing at the man, “Go away!”

Everyone in the coffee shop watches as the woman saunters back through the front door. She marches up to the counter and demands that something must be done about the man pestering people on the sidewalk.

This summer, as visitors flocked to the downtown areas of Oklahoma City and Tulsa for concerts, festivals and ball games, the issues of homelessness and panhandling have been thrust into the limelight. Many of these visitors are unaccustomed to the overt poverty that they encounter when they see their fellow citizens on the street. Some people are prompted to give money; others feel more comfortable crossing to the other side of the street. Regardless of the reaction, the suburban population of Oklahoma is quickly becoming aware of the issues of homelessness and extreme poverty in their own cities.

There are many organizations working in the downtown areas of Oklahoma City and Tulsa to help the homeless population with their immediate needs, but there seems to be a void when it comes to raising people up out of a place of chronic poverty to a position of dignity where they can be self-sufficient members of the community. Finding a meal or toiletries can be a challenging task, no doubt made easier by many of the groups operating in downtown areas. But finding a job opportunity, or a stable living environment is a seemingly unreachable goal for many of these Oklahomans who find themselves on the streets.

It is also no secret that many homeless people struggle with mental illness and/or drug addiction, a fact that causes many citizens visiting the downtown areas to shy away from the homeless residents, and presents further difficulty for homeless individuals to find jobs or stable housing. A recent survey conducted by the Homeless Services Network in Tulsa found that over half of the surveyed homeless population claimed some type of mental health diagnosis.


In many cities around the United States, the reaction to this issue of contested space has been to try to discourage the homeless population from being in the downtown areas by enacting policies or taking legal action. This method has been attempted in recent months in Tulsa’s Brady District where signs have been posted stating: “Do not pay the panhandlers.”

These signs, and other forms of deterrence, are certainly not the best way to deal with the issue of homelessness in our state. Though restrictive policy and legal action tend to have immediate external effects, seeing fewer homeless people on the street is not an indicator that homelessness is less of a problem. If anything, pushing the homeless population further away from mainstream society further damages their chances of finding the help they need to get back on their feet. The counters to these regressive reactions are policies that combat homelessness in our state long-term. These policies don’t necessarily come with immediate visible effects, so the community must be committed to their success.

The survey conducted by Homeless Services Network also asked participants what were the top three services they are most in need of. The most common need listed was housing placement, followed by transportation and health care. This would seem to make sense to most people. The frustrating fact, both to the homeless and to those dedicated to helping them, is that we are more concerned with feeding, hospitalizing, or jailing the homeless than we are with housing or treating them.


Several American cities  have realized the way we have traditionally responded to homelessness has not been effective.  San Antonio, a city that was at the brink of federal sanctions due to their overcrowded incarcerated population a few years ago, is now one of the nation’s leaders in treatment of the homeless population. Instead of indiscriminately jailing homeless, addicted, and mentally-ill individuals there is now an avenue available for police and other organizations that is an alternate to expensive jail or hospital visits. NPR recently reported on the city’s progress:

San Antonio’s restoration center has inpatient psychiatric services, substance abuse treatment, primary care and even housing for people with mental illness. It’s a lot, but it still saves the city and county about $10 million a year.. About 18,000 people come to the center each year. There’s no wrong door. Some patients walk in off the street, others are brought in by police or diverted here from programs inside the jail.

In addition, the city situated the center close to the homeless shelter to ensure easy access to services for those in need.

Through exposure, Oklahomans are becoming more aware of the issue of homelessness in our state. Instead of letting that awareness create punitive policies that harm the homeless population and our community as a whole, or even continue to pursue initiatives that have not been effective, we should use that awareness to benefit the homeless community, to restore them to a place of dignity, and to create forward-thinking, effective policies that take steps to end homelessness in Oklahoma.  

2 thoughts on “Homelessness in the Long Run: Why Oklahoma needs long-term solutions

  1. I am homeless and and I appreciate the food the clothing the shelter but instead of giving us a Band-Aid on the situation give us a hand up by offering us a decent job we can live and not survive on I have many skills from County Appraiser to working with fiberglass I’m an asset to any employer

  2. Also for those of us who do not want to be homeless and do want to get our lives back, provide a decent secure shelter outside the homeless shelters so we can have a stable mind to go to workto get our lives back.
    For those that do not have any initiative to get their lives back well leave them alone but help the ones that do want their lives back that’s all I’m saying and the help that we need is significantly more than just food shelter and clothing

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