Ardmore forms coalition to address homelessness

Sierra Rains
A photo of downtown Ardmore.

Close to 40 Ardmore community leaders met for the third time last week to address homelessness in the community. 

When the facilitator of the discussion asked the group, “If we were able to achieve everything that we’re working towards, would this change our community?” almost everyone nodded their heads. 

The group, officially termed the Ardmore Homeless Coalition, was formed by the Grace Center of Southern Oklahoma in October. Executive Director Laura Akers said this was something the Grace Center leadership had wanted to take on for a while. 

Talks about creating a coalition took hold in Nov. 2019 but were halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “This summer, as homelessness became more visible in our community, we felt the need to discuss the homeless coalition again and see if there was a way that we could safely do that,” Akers said. 

After consulting CDC guidelines and working with the Ardmore Convention Center to secure a large meeting space, the collaboration began to form. With the help of the Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits (OKCNP), the Grace Center called together leaders in business, faith, government, foundations, healthcare, police, fire and nonprofit social services. 

Jerry Wright, OKCNP Director of Consulting, has been leading the discussion and has had experience working with similar groups in Oklahoma City. Wright said his organization was engaged to help facilitate the conversation in order to address homelessness, look for solutions, and develop plans involving the entire community. 

“We probably will never solve homelessness completely so rather than just wishing that it would go away or people would get off the sidewalk or move to another community, it’s going to take the community coming together to try to find answers of how to deal with the problem,” Wright said. 

The coalition is still in its preliminary phase of working out a mission and framework, but the group has identified guiding principles for how it wants to move forward. Akers said the coalition wants to take a solution-based approach and to treat those who stand to benefit from the coalition's work with dignity. 

The overall goal for the coalition is to begin finding preventative solutions for homelessness and to address current issues. In order to do this, Akers said they will need to get a better grasp on the homeless population in the Ardmore community. 

“You can’t manage what you don’t know and you can’t build programs and services that will be effective until you understand who is homeless in our community and what are the numbers as far as who is sheltered and who is unsheltered,” Akers said. 

Many community leaders who have participated in the discussion so far have been surprised by the various kinds of homelessness experienced within the community. Akers said homelessness describes those who are living on city streets— but it also identifies those who are living in their cars, crashing on couches and staying in motels or shelter programs. 

Bringing the community leaders together has led to a lot of discovery about how homelessness impacts different aspects of the community, Wright said. 

“It affects a lot more than most of us realize,” Wright said. “A lot of folks in the Ardmore area are really just one financial crisis away from being homeless themselves. We don’t like to think about that but it certainly is a possibility. If someone has a medical emergency, they can’t afford hospitalization, then they can’t afford their rent.” 

Ardmore Mayor Doug Pfau said he has attended all three of the meetings so far and felt that the city needed to be involved with the coalition. In almost every meeting, Pfau said he has learned something new about homelessness in the community. 

“I think a lot of people see the folks downtown as our homeless population and that really isn’t what our homeless population is, it’s a lot more than that,” Pfau said. “Understanding that and understanding how that works, I just felt like it was something that I needed to be part of.”

Pfau said he thinks that the coalition is something the city needs and can see it having a positive impact on the community. “I think it’s been very productive. I think that the coalition is working in the right direction that could definitely help us help some of the homelessness that we have in the area,” Pfau said. 

Akers said many community leaders like Pfau have continuously showed up for the meetings and though the coalition is still in its beginning phase, she feels as though they have already begun accomplishing a goal of building knowledge and leadership. 

“It’s time to start working together to enhance the services that we have and build from that so we can really start seeing lasting change on a significant scale,” Akers said. In January, the Grace Center and other organizations plan to participate in an annual point-in-time count of the local homeless population. 

The count is required for funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In more recent years, fewer organizations have participated in the count and Akers said she feels that the recent numbers submitted to the federal government don't accurately reflect the homeless population in Ardmore. 

“Once we have that count, we will really be able to start applying those numbers and that knowledge into solutions for our community,” Akers said. Services to individuals experiencing homelessness can work better and be more impactful when there are organizations working together, rather than separately, Wright said. 

“It’s best if a community can, not duplicate services, but really have an effective way to identify who the homeless are,” Wright said. “To provide things like mental health services if they have mental health issues, to get them back on track, get them to a point where they can be employable and get off the street and contribute back to the community.”

The success of the coalition will ultimately be determined by the ability of the group to work together, Wright said. Ideally, the OKCNP's role in the coalition will eventually fade as the community leaders take over. 

“It will take a real good solid group willing to work together to overcome struggles,” Wright said. “We’re there to foster that thought, that coalition, but it will be the local community that spearheads this once our engagement’s finished.” 

Homelessness is a complex issue that will take many years to address, Akers said. The coalition will be something that is consistent within the community and is something that the Grace Center is committed to seeing through. While the community has many different perceptions on homelessness, there is an overwhelming amount of people who want to help. 

“While there are many individuals that are frustrated about homelessness and concerned about homelessness, there’s just as many individuals in our community that are compassionate and believe in helping their fellow neighbor,” Akers said. “It’s that group, the compassionate ones who want to see change and see lives changed, that is stepping up through this Ardmore Homeless Coalition and through other efforts in our community.”

As the coalition develops, Akers said there will be opportunities for citizens and other members of the community to participate in various ways. More information will be posted to the Grace Center of Southern Oklahoma’s website or Facebook page when it becomes available, as well as other participating organization’s websites. 

“I think there’s a lot of beauty in that, in the work that we’re trying to do and the impact that it could have on Ardmore and southern Oklahoma," Akers said.