Shawnee officials launch initiative to help house city's homeless population

Vicky O. Misa
The Shawnee News-Star

The homeless population in Shawnee is about to get a boost in the arm, as boots are now on the ground in a collaborative effort to help people off the streets.

Hired by the City of Shawnee, Lauren Craig, homeless services coordinator, offered city commissioners an overview of the city's homeless initiative and its plan of action to address homelessness in Shawnee.

“The key is we will gather all of our agencies, individuals, anybody who's spear-heading a program that affects the countless people experiencing homelessness, together in one room where we can best match somebody to services they need as we try to rehouse them as fast as humanly possible,” she said.

She said the more information and data that is collected, the more opportunity there is for grant eligibility — and ultimately funding toward housing and urban development.

Shawnee city commissioners just before the start of their April 5, 2021, meeting.

Identifying needs of Shawnee's homeless community

Once homeless are identified, their situation will be assessed to determine the services they need. In collaboration, the group of agencies can then each step up according to which services they can provide.

“The whole key to this is rapidly housing them; we are hoping to get you stable, and the best way that we can get you stable as an individual, as a family, is to get you housed,” she said.

And then services can be made to come to them, Craig said.

More:Shawnee among 5 chosen for program to end homelessness

She said one of the first steps was learning the jargon associated with the HUD (Housing and Urban Development) process.

“(Mayor Ed Bolt and I) had to basically learn a second language,” she said.

Next came a mapping system to learn where homeless encampments were and where individuals were staying, which is crucial for the program, she said.

“We were able to match the police department with our engineering department — that was just a nice organic, problem-solving solution that happened right there just by having a meeting with our inner-agencies,” she said.

Getting support from Shawnee churches, nonprofits

Craig said they also looked outside of Shawnee at others helping with homelessness.

“We worked with a bunch of churches, groups, nonprofits,” she said. They were each asked how they are doing, what is successful and not successful for them, and how they could help.

“These meetings were overwhelmingly positive,” she said. “Everybody's ready to get started.”

Part of what will need to be done is getting information about the homeless that needs to be entered into a data collection system for HUD.

Right now, she said the goal is putting together some policies and language, and ultimately a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the agencies.

More:Pandemic limits homeless bed space during freeze

Making a homeless count and setting up a website also are planned.

“Our team of volunteers and outreach coordinators are going to go to every part of the city — whether it be creek beds, encampments, things like that, as well as downtown,” she said.

There, they will assess each person's situation and ask questions, collecting the data needed to send back to HUD, she said.

In making this list, agencies and their resources will be able to work as a team to prevent the homeless from falling through the cracks, because — now named — these individuals will be specific cases on the radar of everyone involved in the effort.

Shawnee following national movement to address homelessness

After doing some research, Mayor Ed Bolt ran across a program that helps communities collaborate more efficiently with each other to tackle a common goal or issue.

Built For Zero is a national movement to end homelessness. According to its website, at joinbuiltforzero.org, “single programs don’t get us to zero (homeless) — whole communities do.”

Bolt was impressed, so the Shawnee City Commission worked about $10,000 in funds into the budget in expectation of joining the program— only to discover Shawnee was ineligible to participate.

“They made some changes and decided to cap the program at about 110 cities,” he said, as well as cutting out areas in a balance-of-state continuum of care (CoC) situation.

CoC is a geographic area defined by HUD; several areas, like Oklahoma City or Tulsa, have their own CoC, Bolt said.

“Those areas leftover (like Shawnee), they kind of scoop them all up and throw them in one big basket and call that a balance-of-state,” Bolt said. “That was not good news.”

So, the federal program that would have been funded with Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), was now off the table.

He then called HUD.

“We were going to try to form our own CoC,” he said. With HUD on board, he called Built For Zero back to update them on the latest developments.

He found out HUD had also called Built For Zero and shined a spotlight on Shawnee's efforts — likely giving the community a little extra favor at exactly the right time it was needed.

Because he kept directing questions at the right people at the right time, a different, yet similar, opportunity landed in his lap.

As a result, Shawnee is now among only a handful of communities in the country that have been chosen for a brand new Built For Zero program that does not mind the balance-of-state status — and it's free.

Bolt said he doesn't expect the program to fix everything, but it's going to be an organized effort of big-hearted groups that can work more efficiently together toward a common goal.

Watch for updates.

For story ideas, questions or concerns, reporter Vicky O. Misa can be reached at vicky.misa@news-star.com.