Suffering is high among a growing population of homeless individuals within Ardmore.
At the Grace Center of Southern Oklahoma, Day Center Director Karlie Harper visits with around 30 homeless people a day. “I think (the homeless population) is definitely a lot bigger than people think it is,” she said.
More often than not, these individuals suffer from severe mental illnesses such as Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, said Grace Center Executive Director Laura Akers.
Many of these individuals simply cannot function normally, Harper said. Sometimes they can’t even make a cup of coffee because their mental health is so bad and they’ve been on the streets so long, she said.
“I think half a million people in the United States can be defined as homeless and a whole quarter of those have severe mental illnesses,” Harper said. “It’s just a huge number of our homeless population.”
For some people, homelessness is situational, but Harper said she believes mental health and access to affordable health care are two driving factors.
“Individuals who are suffering from mental illness have many hurdles and challenges to trying to operate in our society,” Akers said. “They can’t find work, they can’t keep work, they’re having trouble with their relationships in their families, friends, their community.”
Drug addiction and unresolved childhood trauma sometimes lead individuals into homelessness when they don’t or can’t access services, Akers said.
There are several facilities in Ardmore that offer counseling or therapy services, Harper said. But individuals typically have to have insurance or a good sum of money to access these services, she said.
“That’s just not available for this population so that is one of the things that is really lacking,” Harper said.
This tends to create a cycle where individuals have ongoing, unaddressed mental health issues that make it difficult for them to hold a job and in turn causes them to be evicted from their residence, Akers said.
Once they are on the streets, it becomes even more difficult for homeless individuals to become functioning members of society. Legal troubles are common among the population, Harper said.
“They don’t know how to navigate the system and there’s no one helping them navigate the system, I mean they’re going to end up with things like warrants,” Harper said. “It does happen.”
Carter County Sheriff Chris Bryant said homeless individuals end up in the criminal justice system for a variety of crimes and reasons.
Still, mental health is increasingly becoming a problem for law enforcement and is prevalent within the county jail, Bryant said. And those who are homeless are often fighting some type of mental illness, he said.
“What happens is that we see quite a bit of mental health issues coming through the jail system, through the criminal justice system you see a lot of that,” Bryant said. “And then that’s when we lean on our mental health folks — DHS, Mental Health Services and stuff like that — to come in and assist us.”
The sheriff’s department works to get these individuals the type of care that they demand, but Bryant said there is a need to find better ways to assist people on the streets.
The Grace Center has taken action to make medication more accessible to individuals by allowing them to have it sent to their mailing address, Harper said. And although a shower at the facility sounds simple to most people, it can be essential to improving the health of individuals experiencing homelessness, she said.
“It really boils down to chaos, their lives are just in chaos,” Akers said. “It means the world to have a clean shower, to have $30 put on their water bill, to be able to have a shower and eat a snack in the morning.”
The Grace Center is also looking at ways to collaborate with organizations that provide mental health services in the community, Harper said. But there is still much more to be done, Akers said.
The last time the city of Ardmore took a count to see how many homeless people were in the population was 2013, Akers said. Another count within the next year would be helpful for many of the social organizations in the community looking to help address the problem, she said.
“Once we have the data and the numbers we perhaps can have some interventions or collaborations that can be meaningful and impactful,” Akers said.