Homelessness has often — it not exclusively — been associated with big cities in the past. But under current economic conditions, the issue is spreading throughout smaller communities, including Ardmore.
It is one of those issues of which most people are not aware, until they see it on a daily basis.
“Even growing up, I didn’t realize homelessness was an issue,” says Lesley Dvorak, executive director for The Grace Center of Southern Oklahoma. “When I took over this job, I didn’t realize the different levels of homelessness.”
To paint homelessness with a broad brush does not do service to the issue. Nor does it help in developing a strategy to confront the issue head on. And once again, awareness is incredibly important in understanding the significance of the issue. Within the Grace Center’s five-county coverage area, there are 600 homeless teenagers. These are teenagers living from couch to couch for various reasons.
“There are cases where both parents are incarcerated and some when teenagers are not able to maintain in their environment,” Dvorak explains.
Dvorak says it is the highest growing homeless population in southern Oklahoma, and it matches a nationwide trend. Another trend is the steady increase in the homeless population since 2008. An alarming fact is the number of people struggling despite having jobs.
“One of the things we have seen, there are two minimum-wage employees in a family and they are spending 141 percent of their income on basics,” Dvorak says. “In 75 percent of our prevention efforts, at least one person is working, and they are still not able to meet basic needs.”
Situations in which people find themselves homeless are veterans who have untreated mental illness, and people who, for whatever reason, are unable to gain employment. There are also a small percentage of people who fit the homeless stereotype, Dvorak explains.
Mayor Sheryl Ellis says she has noticed that the face of homeless issues has changed from a person being caught in the cycle to families living out of a car.
“That is where I would say it is increasing,” Ellis decides.
Interim Police Chief Kevin Norris says the department has noticed a slight increase in the number of homeless people in Ardmore.
“Part of the reason, I think, is people arrive to the crisis center,” Norris cites. “People get a ticket to leave, and they don’t use the ticket. We have issues with people congregating downtown and sleeping behind businesses. We try to get them to the Salvation Army or Children of the King, and we will refer them to the Grace Center and the soup kitchen.”
Page 2 of 3 - Jessica Scott, Ardmore code enforcement, says one of the biggest issues is people breaking into abandoned houses to squat.
“We have that in every district of the city,” Scott admits. “They have to break a window or door to get in, and there are no restrooms. Depending on how long or how many people there are, there can be a lot of damage for the property owners.”
Scott says there have been a number of complaints from downtown business owners about the number of homeless people in the district. Dvorak says she has met with the owners and addressed their concerns. But the core issue is finding solutions to help people rather than take away an organization that fights against perpetuation of the cycle of homelessness.
“We all need to work together for solutions,” Dvorak recommends. “We need to do as much as we can do. We have heard ‘Shut down the center,’ but that’s not a solution and it’s not going to solve anything.”
The center’s efforts currently involve treating people with dignity and providing the tools to get a job. But as simple as it sounds, education is a key in helping people land the type of job that keeps them from living close to the homeless line — and sinking below it.
“What you find a lot of times is those working minimum wage jobs are the jobs they are qualified for,” Dvorak advises. “A lot of times, the family working those jobs finds it easier to slip into homelessness. The literacy initiative will be huge for the community at large. If we can bump up the reading skills and other skills and help them get into GED testing, it will expand their opportunities.”
Dvorak says education is key, particularly with younger people who are at risk or teenagers who are among the homeless. She knows there are people who will fall into the common perception of homeless, but others have a desire to receive the needed tools.
“If we meet people where they are, and once trust is built, we have really found that people are more receptive,” Dvorak decides.
Ellis says the city is aware of homeless issues. There have been complaints from the private sector, and there are entities within the private sector funded through foundations that bear the responsibility of helping those who have financial issues.
“There is a conflict between business owners and people that want to help,” Ellis says. “To date, it has fallen on the private sector. We are certainly aware that we have homeless. When it is cold and the facilities are full, we have had conversations with the city manager for people on the street to keep an eye on the homeless.
Page 3 of 3 - “Do we have a total and complete plan? No, we do not. And I think the community has an obligation to take care of its own homeless. I’m not sure how many are transient, and I think it is a complex issue we have not had to address. But that time may be coming.”