The number of people living on the streets in Tulsa jumped 40% this year, reflecting a nationwide trend of homeless encampments spreading across major cities, according to an annual headcount of the local homeless population.
Tulsa officials counted 1,063 people at various homeless shelters, in transitional living facilities or sleeping on the streets, according to data released Thursday by Housing Solutions.
Overall, that was only a 2% increase in the homeless population. But the city’s “unsheltered population” skyrocketed from 287 people in 2021 to 403 this year, perhaps suggesting people were afraid of the potential spread of COVID-19 at homeless shelters, officials said.
“We saw the direct effects of the pandemic” in this year’s count, said Becky Gligo, executive director of Housing Solutions, a nonprofit that oversees several local efforts to reduce homelessness.
“The lack of affordable housing continues to be the greatest barrier to making homelessness rare, brief and nonrecurring,” Gligo said.
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While the results have only now been made public, the annual “point in time” headcount itself was conducted in late January, as usual. Officials depend on winter weather to push people into homeless shelters, making them easier to survey.
If the unsheltered population had grown that much even in January, it might grow even more in warmer months, officials said.
The new data came a day after Mayor G.T. Bynum proposed a new city ordinance that would make it easier for police to remove homeless encampments from Tulsa sidewalks and other public rights of way.
“This is really just addressing a growing issue that I know a number of you have contacted me about,” Bynum told city councilors Wednesday.
In the past four years, the city has invested more than $13 million into housing for the homeless and outreach programs, established an affordable housing trust and hired a housing director, Bynum said.
“We are doing more than we ever have, I think, as a city to support homeless outreach and housing,” he said, emphasizing that “folks do have an alternative” to living on the streets.
The proposal drew immediate criticism from Housing Solutions, where officials described it as “criminalizing homelessness.”
Situations that push people toward homelessness include relationship breakdowns, job losses and mental-health struggles, according to the annual survey.
Other findings include:
10% of homeless adults were accompanied by children.
67% had a “disabling condition.”
50% reported a history of domestic violence.
55% reported a history of incarceration.
22% were employed while being homeless.
The annual survey, conducted by teams of social workers who spread out across the city, “informs our community and service providers about the needs of those facing homelessness in and around Tulsa,” said Melanie Stewart, chair of A Way Home for Tulsa Leadership Council.
“This data helps us target resources and pursue funding opportunities for various subpopulations of those facing homelessness.”