As shelter talks continue, unhoused suffer heat emergencies

·4 min read

Jul. 24—To keep her and her nine-year-old son out of the soaring temperatures, Maria Denson has split time between Food & Shelter Inc. and the Catholic Charities Women's Sanctuary.

Places like these are a refuge for Denson, who lost her home as extreme heat hit most parts of the United States. Norman reached 104 degrees Fahrenheit Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service.

As of Saturday, Norman had daily highs forecast above 100 degrees through Wednesday, according to NWS.

Denson said she's been too stressed looking for shelter and applying for housing to notice the heat. But it's irritated her son, she said.

"There's nothing out here for people," she said, noting that the city's homeless shelter closed at the end of June. The shelter housed up to 35 people each night.

About 750 unhoused people die heat-related deaths each year, according to the Associated Press. April Doshier, executive director of Food & Shelter, said the heat exacerbates health issues unhoused people already had.

As of Wednesday, Food & Shelter had had ambulance visits for 14 consecutive days for heat-related incidents, Doshier said.

Food & Shelter has also seen a nearly 50% increase in meals served during the heat wave. Doshier said this is indicative of more people seeking relief from the heat.

On Wednesday, the cafeteria wall of Food & Shelter was lined with unhoused people sleeping during the day. But outside of its tiny homes, the nonprofit can't house people overnight.

"I don't have any friends with air conditioning. I don't have any place; my mom and dad are dead. So you know, there's nowhere to go," said Jerry Schmit, who has suffered heat stroke twice in the years he's been unhoused. Schmit doesn't have sweat glands, which makes the heat especially difficult for him.

Shelter closure, then heat wave

The heat wave comes less than a month since the city closed its homeless shelter at 325 E. Comanche St. on June 28 after the property owner cut the lease short months earlier than expected.

In the months before the closure, city councilors tried to move the shelter to the Griffin Memorial Hospital property, 900 E. Main St. The move was delayed by Ward 5 Councilor Rarchar Tortorello and Ward 3 Kelly Lynn over concerns that the shelter would put sex offenders near Le Monde International School.

While police data shows roughly one of every five registered sex offenders in Norman is unhoused, it was never confirmed that they were using the shelter on Comanche Street, which would have violated their registration requirements.

Discussions continued until Oklahoma Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services announced it had other uses for the property, which is on state land.

Since then, Norman Care-A-Vans and the unhoused people the group serves have organized a sit-in at city hall to protest the closure of the shelter.

While Tortorello believes the onus to care for unhoused people should fall on nonprofits, he still said the current situation is dire.

"If there's ever been a need for a homeless shelter, the latest extreme heat shows a desperate need for a solution now," he said in a written statement to The Transcript Friday.

Food & Shelter and Salvation Army have since submitted requests for proposal to the city to build overnight shelters. City manager Darrel Pyle said Friday at the council's annual retreat that Food & Shelter's plans could house 50 men.

Tortorello said he hopes proposals like these "will be accepted and eventually funded."

At the council's annual retreat Friday, Tortorello and new mayor Larry Heikkila supported services for unhoused people through nonprofits, not solely through the city. This approach falls between most of the council, who have supported the city's relief efforts, and Lynn, who has said he doesn't want an overnight shelter in Norman at all.

When asked Saturday about his stance on the matter in light of the heat emergencies and Tortorello's and Heikkila's more moderate stances, Lynn said he doesn't want "one tax dollar spent on a shelter."

'No idea where, or when, or how'

For now, many unhoused have limited options to escape the heat and potentially avoid the emergencies that come with it.

Salvation Army has a shelter, but it's not low-barrier. Low-barrier shelters mean anyone, including some unhoused people with criminal backgrounds or substance abuse and mental health issues, may stay there.

While Food & Shelter has extended its hours into the night, Doshier said she's heard unhoused people have had to get creative when escaping the elements. She's heard that unhoused people have stayed at public libraries in the city, and that some have ridden city buses for relief.

"I wish that there was more out there for us, as far as funding and everything," Schmit said.

Denson said she and her son will likely spend a couple of nights outside until they find permanent housing.

Doshier said she hopes the heat wave gives Norman "an empathetic understanding" to why a night shelter is important.

"I have no idea where, or when, or how it's going to go unless I go to the hospital or something," Schmit said.