Ashley was a special education teacher in a former life. Ryan is a good son who often visits his father. Up until now, they have lived very different lives in Tulsa and Oklahoma City, respectively. But, at least to people who pass them by without really seeing who they are as humans, they are “the homeless.” And they both need your help.
Last week, a collaborative team of outreach workers and volunteers offered blankets, kindness and hope to Oklahomans like Ashley and Ryan as a part of the national Point-in-Time count.
The PIT count, as it’s often called, is an annual census of people living in shelters and on the street by volunteers, nonprofits, faith communities, and state and federal agencies. The data is then compiled by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to better serve people in need as we all work to end veteran and chronic homelessness.
Out on the streets, the outreach workers may start with questions like, “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 questions, the conversation turns to asking basic questions about their age, race, and how long they’ve been homeless. Other questions may include 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 use and/or the inability to get a job.
The PIT count is essential, but when some people review its results, they may only see compiled data — not the faces of Ryan and Ashley. But our staff, including Shayla Williams in Oklahoma City and Noe Rodriguez in Tulsa, know their heartbreaking stories and what it’s going to take to get them off the streets and into housing as soon as possible.
These are their stories.
On the streets of Tulsa, Noe already knew about 85 percent of the 40, or so, people he met during the PIT count. There were a handful of veterans and a man who recently exited jail who called the outreach workers “angels.”
“You come across all kinds of people,” Noe said, “you offer them coffee, a blanket and someone who listens and cares.”
Noe spends his days reaching out to people experiencing homelessness, but sometimes he meets someone unlike most any other … someone like Ashley.
Ashley’s in her early 40s and knew how to survive. After enduring the nightmare of domestic violence, Ashley left behind her life as a special education teacher. Because she came from what some people may call “a normal life,” Ashley avoided the shelter system.
“Maybe it’s my pride that keeps me from asking for help,” Ashley said.
Instead, she set up a tent and campsite as if she were on vacation.
Around 9:30 pm, Noe walked towards her encampment, which was hidden from the nearby road. To ward off the cold and darkness, Ashley had a fire going in a fire pit ringed by rocks. She was wearing a worn dark brown jacket, a striped scarf, beanie and blue jeans.
“It was as if she were camping out in a national park,” Noe said, “It’s rare to see someone doing so well despite experiencing homelessness for a couple of years.”
As Noe asked Ashley questions, she emphasized that she was once a teacher with a good life. But now, well, at least she doesn’t have as much to fear as she did in her former relationship.
Ashley said, “Noe, I’m not scared here.”
Still, she was ready to find somewhere that was safe and all her own
“Ashley was clearly exhausted by her circumstances but somewhat energized to see friendly people and wanted to talk,” Noe said. “We gave her some hand warmers, gloves and a few other things. I gave her my card and said, “Please call. I can help you.”
Ashley said, “Yeah, that sounds great. Thank you.”
Overall, when Noe thinks about the power of the PIT count, he said, “If we are going to end homelessness, we need to see that we need more case management, more housing, more everything. We have amazing services in the community. We just need more of it.
“Honestly, I don’t know what the data is going to say, but I know this: Because of the PIT count, Ashley is on her way to a better, safer and happier life.”
Shayla woke up at 2 am to make the hour-long drive to Oklahoma City. By 3:30 am, she was gearing up to head out with three other people for the PIT count. It was cold and windy that early morning. To deal with the chill, Shayla bundled up but the cold still made her eyes water.
During the count, her four-person group met people sleeping on stairwells, near dumpsters, under bridges and other invisible places. And they weren’t nearly so well prepared for the winter.
“Every time I see someone living like that,” Shayla said, “it makes me so sad and I think about my simple everyday blessings.”
Around 6 am, Shayla met 51-year-old Ryan under a bridge. A man and woman lived under that same bridge declined to talk with Shayla’s group. However, Ryan kindly welcomed Shayla and the group to talk with him while he stayed as warm as he could in his green sleeping bag. All he had in the world was that sleeping bag, a windbreaker, a warm hat and a black backpack. So Ryan was obviously thrilled when team member Georgia offered him one of the gray PIT count blankets.
Despite living under a bridge with few belongings, Ryan seemed in fairly good health. He could use a shave but he clearly took care of himself. He definitely appreciated when Georgia supplied him with a hygiene kit full of essential items, like a toothbrush, sanitizing wipes, etc.
As Ryan answered Shayla’s various questions, she learned Ryan had experienced homelessness for the past three years. The interesting part was that Ryan often spent his days with his aging father. Why he chose to sleep under a bridge instead of living with his father is a mystery to Shayla.
When it was time to go, Shayla and fellow team members, April and Dave, said they hoped to see him utilizing community resources so they could help get him in a better situation. That would include getting him connected to more services in the community and into stable housing.
Once Shayla and the PIT team were gone, Ryan closed his eyes and went back to sleep a little warmer under his new blanket.
For Shayla, sleep would have to wait until much later, when she got into bed with thoughts of Ryan still in her head.
“Every night I go to sleep giving thanks for all I have,” Shayla said. “Every day my life is put into perspective because of people just like Ryan.”