Preliminary homeless count completed; town hall Thursday

Vicky O. Misa
The Shawnee News-Star
Volunteers gather in the spring to go over the process of combing the city to collect data on the homeless population.

The City of Shawnee's newly organized program to battle homelessness in the community has completed some initial steps toward effecting change to the longstanding issue. After hiring a full-time coordinator, one of the first points of order was figuring how many are homeless in the area — and why, namely to offer a number of helping hands that may be able to resolve some issues that are hindering their ability to get back on their feet. A town hall is planned Thursday for residents interested in learning more.

City of Shawnee Coordinator of Homeless Services Lauren Craig made a presentation during Monday's Shawnee City Commission meeting to share some of the data that has been collected so far.

According to the initial count — using sheltered homeless numbers, school data and survey forms, Craig said the total comes to 451 homeless or inadequately housed individuals in town, which includes 282 children. Inadequate housing can mean sharing the housing of others, staying in motels, RV parks or campgrounds, in shelters or transitional housing, sleeping in cars, abandoned buildings, substandard housing or similar settings, Craig's report reads.

Homeless unsheltered individuals who completed the survey forms number 86; there were 32 recorded who refused to participate in the data collection process.

City of Shawnee Coordinator of Homeless Services Lauren Craig presents initial findings to city commissioners regarding the newly adopted homeless initiative.

Shawnee's program

In March, Mayor Ed Bolt shared some news on the issue as recent developments in his effort to fight homelessness started to fall into place.

“We don't need another organization,” he said. “We already have a number of great groups that play important roles in aiding the homeless.”

After a lot of research, Bolt had run 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 with the coordination effort the program boasts, so he talked with fellow commissioners about looking more seriously into it.

Shawnee city commissioners worked about $10,000 in funds into the budget in expectation of joining the program, only to discover Shawnee is 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 a handful of communities in the country that has been chosen for a brand new Built For Zero program that does not mind the balance-of-state status — and it's free.

“We're one of the (first) five communities accepted,” Bolt said. “It's Shawnee, Oklahoma; Mayes County, Texas; a southwest Oregon coast community; and Concord, New Hampshire.”

Bolt said five Shawnee representatives started training classes, learning how to collect the right data and use it, as well as coordinate efforts.

“Then I'm sure we'll be bringing all the local organizations in the community into meetings to coordinate the efforts,” he said.

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.

For more information, visit homeshawneeok.org or contact info@homeshawneeok.org.

What now?

Craig will continue to gather and maintain data on homeless individuals and work with many local nonprofits to begin tackling the circumstances of each case to see what help is needed and who is capable of filling that gap.

A town hall is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday at the the Bertha Ann Young City Commission Chambers at City Hall, at 16 W. 9th St. The community is invited and encouraged to attend the informational event to ask questions and learn more about the program and its plan of action.

Watch for updates.

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