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Help for homeless during freeze is tip of iceberg in Tulsa after decades of work on solutions

Help for homeless during freeze is tip of iceberg in Tulsa after decades of work on solutions

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The stories this past week have been heartbreaking and heartwarming of Tulsans finding housing for people without homes.

More than ever, the deadly cold brought more Tulsans face-to-face with those who live on the streets and in cars. The outpouring of warmth rose as the temperatures dropped.

People didn’t just walk by or hand over a dollar. They rented motel rooms, called for interventions and rallied their neighbors to hand out food and blankets. Within three days, nearly every person in Tulsa had a roof over their heads.

At the center of the flurry, serving as mission control, was Becky Gligo, executive director of the nonprofit Housing Solutions.

Gligo didn’t take breaks and always had a phone in hand. She found hotel rooms, arranged for meal deliveries, coordinated outreach teams, responded to calls for help and spoke to donors and the media to get word out about the needs.

“Nobody had any sleep, and everyone felt like this is life and death,” Gligo said. “But there was not one single word among workers on the ground, on the frontline, that wasn’t full of kindness, support and empathy. It was something we felt was important and fulfilling to do.”

On the first night of subzero temperatures, a man sleeping outside near Tulsa shelters died of apparent exposure, touching off a wave of generosity to get everyone in the city indoors.

As people accepted offers of the temporary rooms, case workers established relationships to start finding stable housing, jobs and other basic needs.

“When someone is in an unsheltered situation, that is their home we are walking into. They are skeptical with us, and they may move around a lot,” Gligo said.

“We are building trust with our vulnerable residents. As they are showing up each night, we are asking what we can do. ... We will never have another opportunity again to have so many people who were on the street inside.”

As the humanitarian effort took off, some outrage popped up here and there, questioning why the city hasn’t done more.

But, for decades, Tulsa has been evolving its housing plan with the goal of having a home for every Tulsan.

The city has often been considered on the forefront of tackling the housing and homelessness problems. The Community Service Council of Tulsa for many years served as data collection and coordinating hub among shelters and nonprofits.

In 2019, a yearlong, citywide effort brought together more than 300 people to create an updated affordable housing plan, called A Way Home for Tulsa. It brought institutions to the table that had been missing, such as health care and higher education.

The four-year plan is based on proven national models with some priorities specific to Tulsa, like targeting the extraordinarily high eviction rate. More than 20 agencies serve in a continuum of care within this plan.

“What is unique is not necessarily the plan itself but the people and the partnerships behind it,” Gligo said.

Housing Solutions originated out of this effort to be the lead agency in strategic planning, fundraising and overall coordination. Gligo took over as the nonprofit’s leader about a month ago after serving as the city’s housing policy director.

Tulsa lacks about 3,000 units in affordable housing to meet the need of people who are homeless or nearly homeless. That number is expected to rise.

“We don’t know the long-term impact of the pandemic, but believe more and more people fall into financial crisis,” Gligo said. “More and more people will be in need of more affordable housing than we’ve had in the past.”

The past week brought more community groups into an outreach request system, which provides intervention for people who are homeless.

“It existed but never had so many volunteer-based groups involved,” Gligo said. “The public has very quickly learned who is working in this space and what the efforts are. ... We try to not duplicate efforts because the resources are so slim.

“The biggest thing we are focused on right now is collaboration and coordination. The only thing that matters is helping our most vulnerable neighbors. I’m blown away by what people have been doing and contributing.”

Shelters have not turned anyone away during the winter blast, but the pandemic had been limiting capacity. Each has a set of policies for clients.

None allow alcohol or drug consumption, and many do not allow pets. Partnerships with nonprofits such as 12 & 12 and the city’s sobering center have opened options for those with substance issues.

Eventually, the pandemic and winter weather will lift, but people struggling with housing will remain. Housing Solutions strives to find housing for a person in need within 30 days.

“Across ideology, religion, personal experience and politics, people are laser focused on saving lives and getting housing. It’s incredible,” Gligo said. “There will always be a level of need. That’s why our goal is for homelessness is to be rare, brief and non-recurring.”

Video: Mayor G.T. Bynum on long-term solutions for Tulsa’s homeless

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said 250 people from encampments had found shelter through the efforts.

Photos from Tulsa snowstorm

Ginnie Graham 918-581-8376

Twitter: @GinnieGraham

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