By Matt Gleason
Mental Health Association Oklahoma
On a cold Thursday in Oklahoma — the day of the annual Point in Time count of people experiencing homelessness across America — Janette McKeever, of OKC, and Noe Rodriguez, of Tulsa, both woke up in their respective homes, had breakfast, readied for work and then made their way into the office. They did this because, like you and me, it is normal and expected. When someone veers away from this routine, even if a person has no control over it because of serious mental illness, the world can become a lonely and frightening place lived on the streets.
A job is lost, a marriage ends, a mental illness escalates into crisis, whatever the cause may be, the descent into homelessness strips away all that was and threatens everything the person can be. Janette and Noe understand this reality better than most because it is their job to work on the front lines of homelessness as our Pathways case managers. Their hands, like others in Tulsa and Oklahoma City, are the ones that reach out to people when others cannot or will not. Instead of judging someone for ending up without a home, Janette and Noe see a human being, one who just needs a second chance, a safe place to live, and a way to get into treatment rather than languish under a bridge, get rushed to an ER, or get locked behind bars, or worse.
The annual Point in Time (PIT) count is a census of people experiencing homelessness in Oklahoma City, Tulsa, and communities across the nation. Together with volunteers from across the community, nonprofits, faith communities, and state and federal agencies, outreach to people experiencing homelessness. The data is then compiled by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to better serve those in need as we all work to end veteran and chronic homelessness.
During the 2016 PIT count, 2,749 Oklahomans were either living in shelters or were unsheltered. Of those people, 610 were considered chronically homeless, meaning they had experienced homelessness for a year straight, four times in the past three years, and had a disability such as mental illness. One more stat: 358 were veterans.
The PIT count is important, but some people may only see odd and even numbers — not the faces of Oklahomans who need your help. Janette and Noe, and other case workers like them, know these people by their first names, and they know what it’s going to take to make a difference in their lives: a home, treatment and the compassion of people like you.
When Janette and Noe joined others during the recent PIT count, they went out with teams of experts to greet each person like they would a friend. “Hey, how are you? Do you mind if we ask you a few questions and see how we can help you?” From those first few words, the conversation would turn to asking the person basic questions about their age, race, and how long they had been on the streets or in a shelter. Other questions included if they were a veteran, and what keeps them from holding a job or living in stable housing. Oftentimes, the barriers are mental illness, substance abuse and/or the inability to get a job.
Of all the people Janette and Noe met during the PIT count, two stood out, Tim and David. These are their stories.
Janette met Tim during an indoor ministry dinner at Wiley Post park in Oklahoma City. Tim, who is in his early 60s, had been on the streets for only about a month. The house he was living in, which he did not own, burned down around the holidays, leaving Tim nowhere else to go. He’d never been homeless before, so Tim desperately needed help navigating the homelessness provider system. All he had was a blue backpack and the clothes on his back. He needed compassion and a friend. Janette offered both.
“He seemed very lost,” Janette said. “He didn’t know what he was supposed to do because he’d never been in that situation. He’d didn’t know where to turn to, who to talk to and who to trust.”
The next day, Janette met Tim where he was staying near a church. Janette spent most of the day with Tim as she showed him various community resources to get connected to a temporary shelter, Social Security payments and, ultimately, long-term and supportive housing.
“That day with Tim, I learned he’d been the longtime caregiver of his late brother,” Janette said. “Once his brother died and Tim ended up homeless, he was fearful of being around strangers, and had a lot of anxiety and depression — of course; I would feel the same way if I was living through something like that. That’s why I wanted to help him as much I could. We all try really hard, but this time of year it’s hard to find a place in the shelter that’s available.”
The best advice Janette could give to Tim was that he needed to call the resources in the community every single day so he could continue his journey towards receiving Social Security payments and get off the streets and into housing.
Janette said, “What it all comes down to is this: Tim can never give up hope that his life will change because I know it will.”
Noe first met David around the holidays, when he encountered the thirty-something Tulsan along the Katie Trail, a noted walking and running path known for its hidden — and not-so-hidden encampments.
David’s encampment was an elaborate collection of cared-for tents, and there was even an American flag blowing in the wind. David lived there with his girlfriend and other friends. Noe gave the young couple items the Association collected during its Giving Tuesday Sock Drive. During the exchange of socks, gloves, and blankets, Noe learned that David has serious mental illness and a developmental delay that had kept him on the streets. Noe talked to David about the steps he needed to take to get into housing, and David seemed interested. But David was still living along the Katie Trail during the PIT count.
During the night of the count, David’s encampment had since been torn down and his girlfriend had left him. Fortunately, another group of people living along the trail had invited him into their encampment.
When Noe approached David, the Tulsan was adjusting his backpack on the ground. At that moment, David recognized Noe and gave him a welcoming smile.
After David completed the PIT count interview, he told Noe he was serious about getting into housing. Now it’s a matter of making that a reality. To get that done, it will take outreach workers like Noe building a trusting relationship with David and walking alongside him as he makes his way off the trail and into a new life.
On a grander scale, helping Oklahomans like Tim and David is about big life changes, like getting housing, but it’s also about the general public seeing them as humans just like you and me. And they need a second chance.
“It bothers me when some people generalize anyone living on the streets or in shelters,” Noe said. “There is so much more to who they are than simply not having a home. I’m there when they laugh and joke with one another like brothers and sisters would. And I’m there when they tell stories about the children they miss, and how they lost everything so quickly. All they really want is a way to get it all back. I just hope their new beginnings started during the PIT count and ends with them back home with their families.”