This headline plagues the minds of many Tulsans as the first taste of cold weather comes to the area.
Every year several of our friends and neighbors who are unsheltered die of exposure. It’s likely that several individuals experiencing homelessness in our community will freeze to death on our streets this year as well, but if trends remain on their current course it could be much, much worse than anything our community has ever seen.
In previous years, shelters in Tulsa hover around capacity on the coldest nights of the year, and even as shelters fill up, mats are added on the floor to temporarily increase capacity; meaning that most of our neighbors who find themselves on the street can access shelter when it is needed most. This year is different. COVID-19 and the social distancing measures that have been put in place have put our community in a difficult position when preparing for the cold weather that is fast approaching, with limited options to increase capacity in current facilities. The coldest nights of the year are still months away and our overnight shelters are already at capacity. The dire nature of the situation can be seen when looking at how many emergency shelter beds are available in Tulsa compared to previous years.
Tulsa had an average winter emergency shelter bed utilization of 475 last winter, but reviewing Point in Time (PIT) count data provides a more accurate view of the need. Last winter on January 23rd, 2020 there were 669 people in emergency shelter beds and an additional 268 people out on the street. Over the past 5 years there have been at least 625 people utilizing emergency shelter beds on the night of the PIT count. So based on last year’s numbers, and assuming the population of individuals experiencing unsheltered homelessness has not grown at all (which it has), Tulsa would need 937 available emergency shelter beds to provide safe shelter every person experiencing homelessness during the coldest nights of the year.
Since the initial reduction in capacity in March, Tulsa has added the City Lights Hotel with 67 rooms, and an overflow shelter operated jointly by Tulsa Day Center and Mental Health Association with overnight capacity for 50. Unfortunately, even with efforts to add capacity, the current number of emergency shelter beds in Tulsa is around 367 – that leaves our community 302 beds short of our capacity last winter, and 570 beds short of having a warm bed for all of our vulnerable neighbors.
Fortunately, there are steps we can take as a community that will prove to be lifesaving as we move into the winter months.
Create more emergency shelter space.
Tulsa is not alone in facing an emergency shelter bed shortage. Every city in the county is scrambling to find ways to provide shelter while allowing for social distance for their most vulnerable neighbors. Many communities are finding that this challenge cannot be faced by service providers alone. Communities across the country are partnering with churches and businesses to increase shelter bed capacity and provide safe, warm alternatives to sleeping outside. The National Alliance to End Homelessness just released this guide to help communities identify alternative approaches to winter shelter during the COVID-19 crisis.
Step up collaboration efforts between the City and service agencies.
The City of Tulsa is charged with keeping our public spaces clean and safe for everyone, and sometimes that means relocating individuals experiencing unsheltered homelessness. Over the past several years there has been increased collaboration between the City and social service agencies to ensure that individuals that need to be relocated have somewhere to go and are connected to services. As we move into the winter months sweeps can turn deadly for our neighbors that rely on the tents, blankets, and sleeping bags to provide shelter from the bitter nighttime cold if they do not have a safe place identified for relocation. Collaboration must continue, and no one should be moved without identifying a safe option for relocation.
Double down on permanent housing efforts.
The long-term solution to not having enough emergency shelter space continues to be increasing access to safe, affordable, permanent housing. By maintaining current case management efforts and ramping up street outreach services Tulsa can reduce the number of individuals experiencing unsheltered homelessness and begin to turn the corner toward creating a community where homelessness is rare, brief, and non-recurring.
While the City of Tulsa, local service providers, and community partners have to decide which shelter options and preventative measures will best prepare our community for what lies ahead, people on the street are left with the most difficult decision; enter a crowded indoor space and risk contracting COVID-19 or stay out on the street and risk death by exposure. Let’s hope that the decision isn’t made for them.