Guest column: Understanding Ardmore’s homeless crisis calls for reviewing recent efforts, proposed solutions

By Laura Akers
For The Ardmoreite
Laura Eastes Akers

Over the last few years, homelessness has metastasized to create a crisis in Ardmore. A rising homeless population, a lack of overnight shelter, and an ongoing COVID crisis have led to the emergency our community faces.

For the first time in 20 years, Ardmore is no longer home to an overnight emergency shelter program for our homeless residents. In 2019, Children of the King Baptist Church closed  its nearly 20-year-old shelter ministry program for renovations. Despite the best efforts to rehabilitate the church building into a modern shelter for men, women, and families, the progress has been slow and the shelter remains closed. This past July, the Salvation Army Ardmore shelter closed its doors at night due to a staffing shortage. The closure was temporary, with reopening set for two weeks, but months now have come and gone and the shelter remains closed.

Emergency shelters play a critical role in community efforts to not only provide a safe place for people experiencing housing crises but also keep the unhoused out of sight and save taxpayer dollars. With no overnight programs, police officers, code enforcement, first responders, and emergency room staff are forced to respond to the needs of, or conflicts caused by, the homeless, at the cost of taxpayers and city budget. In the morning hours, it's downtown neighbors and workers who pick up trash and clean the human waste before starting their day. These escalating problems have created widespread anger amongst the downtown community. For our homeless residents, sleeping outside is becoming an increasingly dangerous situation. Not only are vulnerable homeless individuals susceptible to abuse and predation, but they are also sadly subject in our community to derision, harassment, and ad hoc, sometimes dangerously ill-conceived solutions.  

When I arrived at the Grace Center of Southern Oklahoma in 2019, I was drawn to the Grace Day Center program and serving its homeless clients. Between 15 to 20 people would visit the center each day. On a busy day, there might be upwards of 30 people. While our staff recorded the number of showers taken and cups of coffee poured, at that time we didn’t know much else about the population we were serving, other than anecdotally. Our newly hired Day Center Director, Karlie Harper, began sounding the alarm about her observations of clients suffering from severe mental illness, many of whom were going untreated, as well as a lack of social services to provide a path for moving from homeless to housed. I responded, along with Harper’s assistance, to meet with fellow community leaders who come in contact with the homeless population. Our meetings took us everywhere from the police department to Mercy Hospital, and from the Salvation Army Ardmore to Lighthouse Behavioral Health Centers.

The Grace Center committed to better serving its homeless clients. The board of directors and I viewed it as an investment towards addressing a need that was far costlier to ignore.

We entered a partnership with Lighthouse to bring a mental health caseworker to the Grace Center once a week. We established a voucher program with Good Shepherd Community Clinic to connect homeless clients to medical care. The Carter County Health Department arrived for flu shot clinics and later COVID vaccination pods and health testing. Faith leaders gathered for a lunch and tour of the Grace Center. I began to have meetings with homeless service providers across Oklahoma — where I found that Ardmore was not cutting it when it came to addressing homelessness. As a community, we had woeful federal data about the number of homeless individuals in Carter County. For example, in 2020, 7 people were recorded to have been homeless in Carter County.

In addition to our inaccurate homeless statistics, our community was not in tune with the current best practices for addressing homelessness. Cities, including rural communities like Ada, have created a homeless pipeline services model shepherding clients from homeless outreach, to emergency shelters, to supportive housing, and, finally, to permanent housing. A wealth of empirical research supports these pipelines and the effectiveness of their services. Such services are nowhere to be found in Ardmore. There are no caseworkers solely dedicated to homelessness in Ardmore.

To begin to address this dire lack of unified services, the Ardmore Homeless Coalition, a coalition launched by the Grace Center with participation from leaders in business, foundations, faith, health, social services, and more, created a 3-5 year strategic plan for a homeless services approach.

Last January, the homeless service providers and local schools completed the federal Point-In-Time Count survey for Carter County where 129 people were counted as experiencing homelessness. Those numbers were sent to the federal government. Organizations teamed up to collaborate on services and submitted a federal grant request to bring homeless caseworkers, legal aid attorneys, and mental health caseworkers to the Grace Day Center five days a week. The United Way of South Central Oklahoma accessed a federal funding source, previously foreclosed to our community, for rent and utilities.

Additionally, our social service partners began addressing some of the concerns voiced from the first three Homeless Coalition meetings. Ardmore Behavioral Health Collaborative took on the task of creating an updated list of community resources. Lighthouse Behavioral Wellness Centers initiated crucial training like Mental Health First Aid to fellow social service organizations. The Grace Center launched a temporary overnight emergency shelter program to meet the needs of a rising street homeless population in the late winter of 2021.

These important steps to address a fragmented system came as the numbers of our community members falling into homelessness and poverty continued to climb. Recently, on Aug. 26, 68 people visited the Grace Day Center for services.

The last few months have been hard and challenging for the Grace Center. I’ve heard complaints from community members that the Grace Center is not moving fast enough on our work, or that we are taking too long to accomplish the goals of the homeless coalition--even that we are responsible for the increase in homelessness. There is no group of people who want solutions for shelter and increased services for homeless residents more than those of us at the Grace Center and the coalition[1] .  I learned a long time ago that anything worth doing takes time, hard work, and courage.

The current system is no way for homeless people to live. Furthermore, it's bad for our community at large. That’s why, in September 2021, the Grace Center was awarded a nearly $140,000 Emergency Solutions grant from the Oklahoma Department of Commerce with funding from HUD to launch a Rapid Re-Housing Program, which is designed to help individuals and families quickly exit homelessness and return to housing, and to fund an overnight emergency shelter program. When the Grace Center offered its temporary overnight emergency shelter program for 47-nights, the program served 43 unique individuals, including veterans, the disabled, pregnant women, and the elderly. The Grace Center averaged 8 sleeping clients each night. Two paid staff members watched over the clients and the property each night. By the time the program ended, two clients had secured employment, and one homeless Vietnam veteran was relocated to a nursing home program. Once a fire sprinkler system is installed — which was required by the City of Ardmore when it shuttered the program in April — the overnight program can resume and begin to temporarily house up to 10 members of the street homeless each night.

Providing emergency shelter is an efficient and necessary response to the needs and dignity of those sleeping on sidewalks, under business’ facades, in parks, or under bridges.

The Grace Center has partnered with the Oklahoma Housing Finance Authority to help southern Oklahomans with the application and housing search process for the Emergency Housing Vouchers from HUD. This was a program that came about quickly from a Congressional coronavirus relief package and is similar to the Housing Choice Voucher program. In the last two weeks, the Grace Center helped three Ardmore households get approved for the voucher. Several applications are currently pending with OHFA. If the Grace Center hadn’t partnered with OHFA, it is unlikely this program and federal dollars would have made their way to Carter County residents and landlords.

In the midst of a cacophony of opinions and proposed approaches, these are the necessary steps toward building a system that addresses Ardmore's humanitarian homelessness crisis while caring for the least of these, many of whom are our neighbors, and improving the community for all.

— Laura Eastes Akers is the executive director of The Grace Center of Southern Oklahoma, a nonprofit organization committed to preventing homelessness while providing essential services to those in the community experiencing homelessness.