Over the past decade and a half, the population of Oklahoma City has grown by 30%. The good news is that the number of people experiencing homelessness in our city has not followed that same trend. During the same period, the number of people experiencing homelessness on any given night has fallen from nearly 2,000 in 2007 to 1,339 earlier this year. We are now the 20th-largest city in the nation by overall population, yet we rank 82nd among cities for total number of people experiencing homelessness. It’s actually pretty remarkable that a loose coalition of nonprofit and faith-based organizations have worked so well together addressing the local challenges of the national problem that is homelessness.
But a reduction in homelessness may seem counter to what you see as you drive across the city. Development has pushed people into more visible locations, and a lack of low-barrier shelter beds means we see people sleeping outside, making the issue more visible. When we see even one person on the street suffering, that is one person too many.
While we have seen some success in keeping numbers down, there are dark clouds on the horizon. Of the 50 largest cities in the country, Oklahoma City had the fastest-rising rent costs in 2022. Up 26% this year. As a consequence, the eviction court docket in Oklahoma County is setting records. Throughout this year, it’s not unusual to see 150 on a single day’s docket, and 150 evictions is 150 households, not 150 individuals. That number of people potentially becoming homeless, coupled with the rising costs of moving families and individuals back into housing, will mean numbers are going to start trending upward.
What’s to be done? In the short term, local government must join charitable foundations and individuals in financially supporting those faith-based and nonprofit organizations that have been so successful in reducing homelessness over the past 15 years. While the nonprofit and faith communities have managed well, current resources simply are not enough to weather the coming storm.
In the longer term, as a community we must begin to thoughtfully plan for the housing and supportive services needs of all our neighbors. Zoning has to become more inclusive and allow for higher-density housing and other creative solutions like tiny homes without endless bureaucratic barriers. New housing developments could be incentivized to include set-asides for lower-income households as a homelessness prevention measure. City and county operating budgets must begin to include funding for services like street outreach, housing case management, eviction prevention assistance and mental health support.
The nonprofit and faith-based organizations working together on this issue have housed more than 1,600 people in the past 12 months alone. But none of us can keep up with the demand. And the inflow of people losing their homes is only making it worse. As a community, we must scale up what is working, develop more truly affordable housing and turn off the pipeline of people losing their homes.
Dan Straughan is executive director of the Homeless Alliance, a nonprofit that operates a homeless resource campus, day shelter, supportive employment for people transitioning out of homelessness and housing programs.
This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Homeless Alliance: We need to turn off pipeline of people losing their homes