Number of deficient Oklahoma bridges continues to drop

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Officials say the number of structurally deficient bridges in Oklahoma has dropped from about 1,170 in 2004 to 132.

Transportation Secretary Tim Gatz told a state transportation panel Monday that Oklahoma now ranks 13th in the U.S. for fewest deficient bridges in its highway system.

About 6,800 bridges are part of Oklahoma's system, a number that doesn't include other spans operated by local entities such as city and county governments.

Gatz says the state Department of Transportation began setting more money aside in 2006 for bridge repairs, and lawmakers provided additional funding a few years later.

He says a finding that a bridge is deficient doesn't necessarily mean it's dangerous for motorists to cross. It's an indication that some part of the bridge, such as the driving surface, needs improvements.


Oklahoma council releases 5-year plan to end homelessness

By KAYLA BRANCH The Oklahoman

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — In Oklahoma, almost 4,000 people were officially counted as experiencing homelessness last year.

Service providers ranging from shelters and mental health groups to the Department of Education and Department of Veterans Affairs each have a specific need they are trying to meet for that population, whether it be housing, substance abuse treatment or children's programming.

And to bring these providers and many others together to tackle homelessness holistically, Oklahoma has the Governor's Interagency Council on Homelessness.

Greg Shinn, council chair and associate director and chief housing officer for Mental Health Association Oklahoma, said the council helps overcome the siloed nature of social service providers by connecting power players, ideas and resources all over the state.

"It's really great to get all that brain power in the same room and have some strong advocacy voices at the table representing veterans and tribes and job programs and schools," Shinn told The Oklahoman.

"We hold ourselves to the ideology that homelessness is preventable, and we can end homelessness in the state of Oklahoma. We just need to rally our resources and work together on a unified plan to do it."

The council, created in 2004 by Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry's administration, is part of a larger network of councils in every state, headed by a federal program.

The mission is for the council to meet regularly with service providers, share information, identify problem areas and come up with potential solutions to end homelessness. These solutions are then presented to the governor's office to help craft policy and provide expertise.

In the 15 years since the Oklahoma council began, its impact and effectiveness has improved, said Kay Floyd, a longtime member of the council and state director of Head Start Collaboration for the Oklahoma Association of Community Action Agencies.

"I think we've come a long way since the beginning," Floyd said. "We all do have a particular perspective from where we come from, and that's really the point."

There are 25 members appointed to the council through the governor's office. Gov. Kevin Stitt recently signed an executive order to continue the council's operations during his tenure.

The council hosts its meetings at various locations around the state to introduce members to different service providers and groups they may not have known about, Shinn said. For the April meeting, the council went to Henryetta to visit a reintegration center run by the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

"The idea is to go around and see some of the models and ways that different parts of our state are innovating and creating access to housing and services and jobs and helping overcome barriers to ending and preventing homelessness," Shinn said.

And while the council may not have tangible authority over the issue of homelessness, it is responsible for creating and monitoring a statewide plan to end homelessness.

"There is a need for people to research and discuss before you make policy, and that's us. And eventually it does get to the people who make the decisions," Floyd said. "I think that is the purpose of this group and that's how we have an influence."

The council recently released a new, five-year plan to end homelessness.

Three focus areas make up the plan — capacity building, cross-system transitions and public awareness and engagement. This includes more funding, mapping resource locations and providing technical assistance and trainings.

"How do you get them back into the housing market when they have zero income and they have a disability? Or when they are a young person experiencing homelessness?" Shinn said. "You have to have the resources and access to housing and collaboration. Those are the key strategies in the new five year plan."

Public comments were taken on what areas the plan should address. Over 600 responses were recorded and focused on sharing information and contacts.

This plan covers a shorter time span and is less task-specific than the previous 10-year plan, but should work well to guide providers toward strategic goals, said Dan Straughan, director of the Homeless Alliance and a former council chair.

"If you don't update the plan but every 10 years, and priorities change or funding mechanisms change, then your plan is shot to hell," Straughan said. "So to have more strategic rather than tactical goals makes a lot more sense, especially for a body that ought to be thinking strategically."

Shinn said the connection to the governor's office and mandate to create an action plan puts the council in a position to help bring about change for the better.

"If you're thinking about the trajectory of the future of our state, I don't care what sector of business or industry you're in, these are things that are of great importance to everybody," Shinn said. "Where do you prioritize your state resources? Toward mental health, toward health care, toward education, toward employment opportunities and affordable housing. The council sits in a key role to provide that information every year to the governor's office so it can be monitored."