Breaking Camp: Lawmakers Take Aim at Homeless Encampments on State Land

Thursday, 07 March 2024 15:18

Breaking Camp: Lawmakers Take Aim at Homeless Encampments on State Land Featured

Written by Heather Warlick, OklahomaWatch
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Two bills would outlaw sleeping on state land that isn’t a designated campsite. Supporters say it’s for safety. Opponents say there are better ways.

Valerie G. was sitting alongside Oklahoma City Boulevard on March 5, huddled with some friends, trying to keep warm in 45-degree morning weather, next to a makeshift fireplace made from a metal bucket with holes punched in it, burning a piece of wood. She asked that Oklahoma Watch not use her last name.

Valerie, 41, a well-spoken woman with vibrant blue eyes that reflected a hesitant trust, said she has been living homeless in Oklahoma City for eight years. During that time, she said she has been sexually assaulted numerous times and is now trying to get out of a human trafficking situation with a drug dealer in the area. 

“Being a female out here is extremely dangerous,” she said. She spoke of other homeless female friends who had also been victimized and even murdered on the streets of Oklahoma City. 

Valerie G. was sitting alongside Oklahoma City Boulevard on March 5, huddled with some friends, trying to keep warm in 45-degree morning weather, next to a makeshift fireplace made from a metal bucket with holes punched in it, burning a piece of wood. She asked that Oklahoma Watch not use her last name.

Valerie, 41, a well-spoken woman with vibrant blue eyes that reflected a hesitant trust, said she has been living homeless in Oklahoma City for eight years. During that time, she said she has been sexually assaulted numerous times and is now trying to get out of a human trafficking situation with a drug dealer in the area. 

“Being a female out here is extremely dangerous,” she said. She spoke of other homeless female friends who had also been victimized and even murdered on the streets of Oklahoma City. 

When her trafficker caught wind that she was considering pressing charges, she said, things became worse for her. 

“I have to watch my ass constantly,” she said. “I don’t know if he’s going to turn against me one day. It’s scary.” 

To stay away from her trafficker, she said she moves around from place to place, on state and municipal land and even private property. 

Bills intended to keep people like Valerie, who are experiencing homelessness, from sleeping on state-owned lands, are making their way through the 2024 Oklahoma Legislative Session. Two bills in particular would evict people from sleeping on public rights-of-way or state-owned lands and threaten fines, misdemeanor charges and imprisonment if people don’t comply. 

“I believe that’s a violation of my constitutional rights and actually, my civil rights,” Valerie said.

“Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” Valerie quoted the Emma Lazarus poem that graces the Statue of Liberty. 

Valerie is one of more than 1,430 people in Oklahoma City and more than 1,130 in the city of Tulsa who slept in emergency shelters or under the open sky during the 2023 Point in Time counts. Many of those people are children who, with their parents, sleep on state-owned and public-owned land, including under highway overpasses.  

The Oklahoma Senate and House of Representatives on Wednesday passed from their chambers HB 3686 by Rep. Chris Kannady, R-OKC, and SB 1854, co-authored by Sen. Darrell Weaver, R-Moore, Kannady, and several other lawmakers. 

The bills would require officers to first issue a warning, asking the person to leave and offering a ride to an emergency shelter with overnight beds or other types of assistance facilities such as food pantries. Failure to move or accept a ride could result in a fine of up to $50 or a maximum of 15 days in jail. 

“We’re already down on our luck,” Valerie said. “We’re already depressed. We don’t want the situation that we’re in.”

While many Oklahoma legislators seem to support the bills, some local and national experts think they are a waste of time and resources. Better ways exist to handle the problem of homelessness other than clearing homeless camps by forcing people out and clearing the grounds, they contend. 

“You’re going to fine us and put us in jail?” Valerie said. “How is that helping us? You can’t bulldoze the problem.”

Under the Bridge Downtown

Kannady declined to talk about the bills with Oklahoma Watch, saying if the public wants to know his opinions, they can watch the videos of committee meetings and floor activities available at the Oklahoma State Legislature website. During a committee meeting, Kannady said the bill was necessary to give law enforcement tools; now, he said, there isn’t much they can do and the minimal penalties called for are just tokens.

Weaver said his biggest concern is people sleeping under overpasses and the dangers it presents them and the general public. 

“I know there is a certain location that literally, if (a person sleeping there) were to roll off down the ramp at the back of this underpass, I mean there’s nothing that would stop them from rolling right out into the road,” Weaver said in defense of his bill on the Senate floor. 

“It’s clearly a safety issue for not only those individuals, but (also for) the person that’s driving their car that could be in a potential of now having to run somebody over and having to live with that for the rest of their life,” he said.

“Just get out from under the underpass, that’s all I’m saying,” Weaver told Oklahoma Watch.

Nowhere in the bills do the words underpass or overpass appear. On the Senate floor, Weaver said a person asked to move by an officer could simply relocate across the street from their original location, from state land to municipal land. 

Sen. Julia Kirt, D-Oklahoma City, voiced serious concerns over the proposed new law during the Senate floor session when lawmakers voted to pass the bill out of the Senate. 

“What I’m concerned about is criminalizing someone who doesn’t have a home,” Kirt said. “That doesn’t solve our problem. When we talk about moving someone across the street, that is still in our community. We’ve not solved that challenge that that person is facing. This is written in a very broad manner that makes it difficult to analyze who would be impacted, what type of assistance we’re talking about and what would count as a refusal.” 

Kirt went on to say that Oklahoma needs to change the way the state approaches the challenge of homelessness.  

“If somebody is sleeping under a bridge, they have nowhere else to sleep,” she said. “We are short of units for people to live; we are short of shelter beds; some of our communities don’t have overnight shelters available at all.”

Dan Straughan, founder and executive director of The Homeless Alliance in Oklahoma City, agreed with Weaver that sleeping under overpasses is dangerous, but he said it’s virtually the same as people sleeping in tents in the woods or on sidewalks.  

The state has failed to invest enough in facilities that assist with factors like mental health, substance abuse, legal representation for evictions and healthcare, which can lead to, or be exacerbated by homelessness, Straughan said.

“When we haven’t set up the infrastructure to take people out from under the overpass and get them into housing, then people sleep under overpasses,” Straughan said.

Valerie agreed.

“You want us to get off the streets and stuff, why not take those resources that you’re putting into making laws against us, and put them into trying to help us?” Valerie asked.

A Dangerous Life

“The public health part of this is more for the people that are sleeping up there (in overpasses) than it is for the general public,” Straughan said. “The danger to the public is more of a moral injury.”

As people drive through the city and see homeless people sleeping in dangerous conditions, they may feel bad and wish it weren’t happening along their roadways.

“I think there is a legitimate government interest in curbing those activities, but there is a smart way to go about it and a dumb way to go about it,” Straughan said. “And (these bills are) the dumb way.”

When homeless people are asked to move, Staughan said they usually comply. He recalled a recent situation near Virginia and NW 4th in downtown Oklahoma City. The area has a lot of trees and, Straughan said, if you don’t mind traffic, it could be a good place to camp. 

Law enforcement officers started fielding calls from residents and business owners upset about the camp, its residents, and the amount of trash accumulating in the area. Officers told the campers they had to move, so they packed up and moved east, to a large undeveloped plat that’s privately owned. 

“So what happened then is a government entity moved people off public property and made it the problem of a private citizen,” he said.

Straughan said that will continue to happen if laws are passed that make homeless camps illegal on state or public property. 

A Constitutional Question

A pending court decision could call the constitutionality of these laws into question if cities don’t provide enough shelter beds. 

In April, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to review an appellate court ruling out of Grant’s Pass, Oregon. The appeal is partially based on a 2018 precedent in Martin v. Boise, in which a three-judge panel found that anti-camping ordinances violated the U.S. Constitution. 

The Boise case ended with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals deciding that forcing people off public property when not enough beds are available in emergency shelters is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment clause.

In Oklahoma City, emergency shelters providing overnight stays have 950 beds. During the city’s 2023 Point in Time count, those beds were mostly full, leaving about 550 people without access. 

During Tulsa’s 2023 Point in Time count, 686 people occupied beds in the city’s 688 total emergency shelter beds. Two beds were open, likely because family units of three occupied spaces that could accommodate four. For safety reasons, shelters decline to place a non-family member with family groups. 

Considering the city’s 1,130 homeless on the day the Point in Time count was taken, the data suggests a shortage of about 440 shelter beds available in Tulsa on any given night.

A Proven Path Home 

“I hate being out here,” Valerie said. “I love the people. I try to be positive with people, and I try to help people when I can, but I hate being out here. It’s been long enough.”

She teared up when asked if she would accept help if offered and said she needs help. 

“It’s nice to be treated like a human being,” she said. “So many people despise the homeless.”

Oklahoma City government and nonprofit projects, such as the new Key to Home Encampment Rehousing Initiative, address the problem of people living in homeless encampments by engaging dozens of nonprofit, private and public stakeholders.

Since September 2023, the Encampment Rehousing Initiative has targeted nine encampments, one being the underpass at I-44 and Pennsylvania Ave, said Jamie Caves, strategy and implementation manager for the Key to Home Partnership.

Eighty-eight people living in those encampments have been successfully placed in homes, the city of Oklahoma City reported. Those people were assigned case managers and provided with wrap-around services to address the particular problems that contributed to their becoming homeless. 

These problems may involve criminal records, health debt, less-than-honorable military discharges (preventing the VA from providing housing assistance), evictions, mental illness, substance addiction and other obstacles. 

Nowhere in the Encampment Rehousing Initiative are people threatened with fines, which they usually couldn’t pay and would likely lead to warrants, or arrests, adding criminal charges to homeless people’s lists of obstacles. And contrary to threatening jail time, the Initiative can help its clients get some criminal records expunged so they can clear that slate. 

Key to Home aims to rehouse 500 people experiencing unsheltered, chronic homelessness by the end of 2025.

The Encampment Rehousing Initiative is similar to models used in Houston and Dallas. In 2021, 91% of Houston people experiencing homelessness who were offered housing accepted, Caves said, and since 2011, Houston has seen a 63% reduction in homelessness.

Homelessness and a Housing Problem 

“Do I feel like homelessness is a housing problem?” Weaver said. “It could be. I mean, it could be if they don’t have any place to live.” 

The National Income Housing Association estimated that Oklahoma lacks more than 81,600 homes available for people seeking them. The group estimated $26,500 per year as the minimum income for a family of four to sustain housing and related costs.  

Oklahoma City and Tulsa initiatives are incentivizing building multi-family units to help offset insufficient housing supplies. But building affordable housing meets resistance with 96% of the residential land in Oklahoma City and 81% of Tulsa residential land zoned for single-family units according to Sabine Brown, infrastructure and access senior policy analyst at the Oklahoma Policy Institute. Rezoning is needed to help residents, especially people with very low incomes, to escape their niches under overpasses and find safe and affordable homes. 

Straughan pointed to a continuum of housing needs ranging from entry-level renters who move up the housing ladder, eventually becoming homeowners. If something kinks that spectrum, Straughan said, people can’t move up and others can’t move into the entry-level homes. 

Even if available, affordable homes weren’t so scarce, people experiencing homelessness generally don’t have the money it would take to move in. 

Though 14% of people experiencing homelessness reported having jobs in the Tulsa Point in Time census, the state’s low minimum wage, $7.25 per hour, hasn’t increased since 2009. That is a far cry from the Oklahoma Policy Institute’s estimate of a wage of at least $18 per hour needed to sustain a market-value two-bedroom rental.

When people don’t have stable housing, they cost communities money, cycling through emergency departments, psychiatric centers, detox programs and jails, according to The National Alliance to End Homelessness. 

Alleviating the financial burden homelessness brings also takes money and time, Straughan said. 

“If you really want to address this problem there are ways to do it, but criminalizing homelessness is not an effective tool,” Straughan said. 

No city in America has ever managed to arrest its way out of homelessness, Straughan said. 

The Oklahoma Standard – A Moral Dilemma 

Oklahoma is the third fastest-growing economy in the country as of 2023, according to the Oklahoma Commerce Department. 

“We’re also one of the most compassionate states,” Straughan said. 

The Oklahoma Standard, he said, was born from the willingness of Oklahomans to help one another after disasters such as the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the 2023 spate of wildfires that destroyed 47,222 acres of lands, and the 1999 Bridge Creek–Moore tornado that destroyed 8,000 buildings, killed 46 people, and injured 800. 

“You drive by and you see people sleeping under an overpass and you ought to feel some level of guilt,” Straughan said. “You ought to think to yourself, ‘My community can do better.’”

“We were based on immigration and underprivileged people,” Valerie said. “That’s what America is about.”

We can do better, but not by fining and imposing jail time on people during their lowest moments, Straughn said.

“We’re homeless – that’s a condition of America,” Valerie said. “That’s not our fault. Start looking at the government, not at us.”

 

Heather Warlick is a reporter covering evictions, housing and homelessness. Contact her at (405) 226-1915 or hwarlick@oklahomawatch.org.

 

Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.

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