Tulsa has better options than punitive responses to truancy and homelessness

This post is by OK Policy intern Lydia Lapidus. Lydia is a recent graduate from George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs with a concentration in International Politics.

In recent weeks, the Tulsa City Council has considered ordinances that seek to address the city’s problems with truancy and homelessness. Unfortunately, rather than basing those responses on what works – investing in social services and programs – they instead double down on punitive responses through the criminal justice system. Local governments across the state should do what they can to address problems like these, but we must ensure that they do so in ways that work.

The circumstances that lead to homelessness and truancy are complex. However, we do know that simply making it easier to fine and incarcerate people in these situations will only perpetuate the very issues the city seeks to address. It’s time for Tulsa to implement cost-effective solutions, not punish citizens who can least afford it.

Recent Tulsa City Council proposals focus on punitive responses to tough problems.

In a preliminary vote in March, the Tulsa City Council advanced a measure that would allow fines between $25 and $500 per unexcused absence (on top of court fees) to be charged to students ages 12-17 who are truant and impose up to six months in jail for their parents. Following public outcry, City Councilor Karen Gilbert chose to table the ordinance. She now plans to establish a task force made up of truancy officers, mental health workers, and other community partners who can recommend a more effective, service-based strategy.

Councilor Gilbert should be applauded for stepping back from her punitive strategy and including social service agencies in the truancy task force. Other jurisdictions have shown that harsh truancy laws like the ones originally proposed don’t help students, and they punish the poor – something that’s already a huge problem in Oklahoma.

Unfortunately, the Tulsa City Council soon introduced another ordinance that creates a similarly harsh response to another problem. The proposal, a request of the Oklahoma Department of Public Transportation (ODOT), would give police the authority to remove, fine, and arrest people camping under bridges. ODOT officials asked for the ordinance to address issues of safety for workers and the people camped out.

Once again, the preferred response to a difficult issue was to allow police to fine and arrest people in vulnerable positions rather than look for interventions that get at the root of the problem. By heaping more fines on people with virtually nothing, punitive responses like these only perpetuate the cycle of homelessness and cost taxpayers thousands in jail and emergency service costs.

We know criminalizing social issues doesn’t work. Fortunately, Tulsa has other options.

The two proposals show that for too many elected officials, the justice system is still the first response to deep, difficult social problems. The causes of truancy vary: transportation issues, bullying, safety concerns, immigration status, and many other factors can contribute to students missing class. People facing homelessness also face complex obstacles that are nearly impossible to resolve without access to sustainable housing and job retraining programs. We have plenty of evidence that criminalizing these behaviors does nothing to address their underlying causes.

Councilor Gilbert and others have proposed expanding the capacity of Tulsa’s Special Services Docket, saying that getting parents of truant parents into this program was the original purpose of the truancy ordinance. The Special Services Docket is already in use for people charged with misdemeanors like loitering or trespassing, and it allows municipal court defendants dealing with mental illness, substance abuse, and homelessness to be paired with a case manager in lieu of serving jail time and paying fines.

However, limited court capacity and access to social services have made access to this docket more of an exception than a rule. Bringing truancy cases through this court and using fines as a last resort for defiant cases is a good strategy, but the court must have the capacity to deal with those additional cases before harsh fines and incarceration is put into place.

Cities can reduce homelessness and cut costs with Housing First initiatives

Recently, several cities have seen promising results by implementing “housing first” strategies. This model encourages giving people experiencing homelessness a place to live first, before addressing employment and medical issues, rather than requiring individuals to overcome addictions or mental illness before they can be housed. This model has a high success rate, with between 75 percent and 91 percent of participants still in a home one year after the intervention. Providing access to housing also saves money for cities, as people are less likely to use emergency services, shelters, and jails than those who are homeless. 

One study found that a Housing First program saved the community an average of $31,545 per person in emergency services. Another showed that in Florida, providing permanent housing for a chronically homeless person costs just $10,051 per year – one third of the cost of leaving them on the streets. “Housing first” programs offer an excellent opportunity to address deep, long-standing problems, but City Councilors must be committed to pursuing them.

Tulsa needs a citywide, interagency strategy to address social issues

It’s easier to pass laws that make being homeless or truant a crime than to plan and implement the programs that have worked elsewhere. Tulsa’s two recent proposed ordinances would try to use the justice system to coerce people into changing, and they would do more harm than good both in terms of those affected by them and the city’s budget. Simply empowering police to dole out fines, which often balloon into overwhelming debt, is the wrong approach. Mayor G.T. Bynum has been lauded for his initiative to put Tulsa’s focus on data-based governance, and implementing data-based solutions such as truancy and homelessness can benefit from that. In order to do this, we must first move past our instinctive reliance on punishment to improve social conditions.

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