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Community responds to limited overnight shelter homeless options in Ardmore

Sierra Rains
The Daily Ardmoreite
Ardmore Clean Team members remove a mattress found at a homeless camp in a wooded area behind the Ardmore Veterans Center.

Individuals experiencing homelessness in Ardmore currently only have one place to turn to for overnight shelter, but individuals in the community are working to change that. 

The area has been down a shelter ever since the Children of the King Baptist Church closed its shelter for renovations in August, 2019. The Salvation Army has been the only overnight shelter available for more than a year, but staff members at the shelter say individuals appear to be staying elsewhere. Many homeless encampments have also been appearing across town. 

Salvation Army Social Services Case Worker Debra Douthit said the emergency overnight shelter in Ardmore will normally be close to full capacity during the winter months, with around 15 individuals staying overnight, but things have been slow for the past few months. Only around 15 individuals have come during the entire month of January this year. 

“That surprises me,” Douthit said. Some qualifications deter or prevent individuals from staying at the shelter, particularly the Salvation Army’s zero-tolerance policy on drugs and alcohol.

“A lot of times people don’t want to come because of the strict rules, they can’t drink or have their drugs or anything inside,” Douthit said. “Some of them choose to just not come in because they want to bring their stuff with them and we won’t allow it. That could be one of the big reasons why we’re not real busy.”

Drug addiction and unresolved childhood trauma sometimes leads individuals into homelessness when they don’t or can’t access counseling services, and once they are on the streets, it can become even more difficult. 

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, around 26.2% of all persons who were homeless had a severe mental illness and 34.7% of all adults who were homeless had chronic substance use issues. 

The Salvation Army provides educational, counseling and vocational services to homeless individuals and families, but individuals have to be willing to seek those services, and some lack a solid structure to help them do that. 

When the Children of the King's shelter closed for renovations in Aug. 2019, they expected the shelter to be back open relatively quickly. While the renovations were underway, they housed their homeless residents in a local hotel, but the situation went south the longer the construction took. 

Pastor Ted Clark, Jr., who runs the church, said many individuals returned to unhealthy habits due to the lack of structure in their lives. “They didn’t have the structure,” Clark said. “That’s where the deterioration, I think, came in. We don’t own the hotel, so we can only set certain guidelines but they really don’t have to follow them.”

Clark said the renovation process became much more lengthy and expensive the farther they got into it. The original quotes for the project did not match the scale of construction the building truly needed. 

“During the renovation we were quoted on a few things by contractors and no one really showed us the ins and outs,” Clark said. “Now we have a contractor that really went inside the building, let us know honestly where it stands, what really has to be done, and basically we really have to restructure the whole building.”

The structure, which was built in the 1940s, had begun to decay so much that one of the main walls leading to the shelter was about to cave in. What was once a simple renovation has turned into a lengthy rebuilding process. “The whole place has to be solid and safe for people to live there again,” Clark said.

Clark said the church is currently in the process of obtaining grant funding and has a team ready to rebuild once the funding is secured. Ideally, the shelter will be up and running once again in a few months. 

Once the shelter is complete, Clark said he thinks it will help homeless individuals regain some structure in their lives and re-integrate into society. Clark said he wants to provide a greater quality of life for people experiencing homelessness. 

“We want it to be the Taj Mahal of shelters,” Clark said. “We want to rebuild and we want to rebuild them with fresh new clothes, fresh new attitude. It’s not an overnight thing but it’s very exciting to see people come in from whatever situation they have been dealt with and then overcome it.” 

Those who stay at the Children of the King shelter will be required to look for employment and attend AA services or other programs to help them with any substance abuse problems they might have, and prevent them from relapsing and going back into homelessness.

“The renovation and the new way of operating I think is really going to be beneficial to those that come down, we’re going to give them the right tools to rebuild their lives,” Clark said. 

Impact Ardmore is looking to achieve a similar goal with its sights on an apartment complex the nonprofit hopes to turn into overnight and transitional lodging with minimal barriers for entry. 

The nonprofit began talks with the owner of the complex in Aug. 2020, and after receiving a wide amount of community support, is currently just waiting on funding to move forward. 

“The Neighbor’s House is still on the table and we’re working diligently to try and make sure that that takes place, but we are waiting for funding to come through on that,” said Impact Ardmore Executive Director Misty Apala. 

Apala said they are looking at being able to incorporate resources such as the local soup kitchen and other nonprofits into the lodging facility. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a few setbacks, but Apala said they are hoping for the project to take off in Spring, 2021. 

“A picture of success for me looks like an entire community working together to alleviate homelessness at any level,” Apala said of the project in August. “It’s simply giving someone a pillow while all of us come together and give them an opportunity to receive a hand-up and become longterm successful with some of the basic tools that we all have to offer.” 

With many community leaders working together in the newly formed Ardmore Homeless Coalition, Clark said he thinks the future looks bright for Ardmore and the individuals experiencing homelessness in the community. 

“We’re really coming together here in Ardmore. I think that is really promising and the possibilities of making this the greatest county in the world," Clark said. "They’re sleeping at parks and its sort of devastating to see it. Once we are back and functioning at full capacity I think we’re going to make a great contribution to cleaning our streets up in reference to the homeless situation.”