In February, when the snow fell and the temperatures stubbornly stuck below zero, homeless outreach workers were out day and night ushering people off the streets, out of their hidden encampments and into warm, covered quarters.
The public helped, too, with their time and with their money: About $800,000 in private donations was raised to provide 300 people with temporary housing in a closed hotel near 41st Street and Garnett Avenue.
Homeless advocates figured they’d turn the crisis into an opportunity. They set up social services in the Hotel to Housing, as they call it, they brought in case workers, and they provided three squares a day.
Next stop, for the lucky ones, would be permanent housing.
Becky Gligo, executive director of the nonprofit Housing Solutions, said the innovative program is working.
“It has been really very successful. We’re working housing plans, we’re housing people every day,” Gligo said. “And we’ve got DHS embedded in there getting people income, we’re having job fairs, we’re doing group housing case management. So there is a lot of activity to support folks.”
The goal is to have 80% of the Hotel to Housing residents in permanent housing by the time the facility closes at the end of May. Housing Solutions will work with those who have not been placed in permanent housing by then to find other accommodations.
“That will really depend on the person,” Gligo said. “But we are not going to just turn them out into the street.”
That’s the upside of this story. The downside is that concentrating individuals experiencing homelessness in one place sometimes leads to unintended consequences, and almost always to neighborhood concerns.
City Councilor Connie Dodson, whose district’s southern border is across 41st Street from the temporary homeless hotel, has some of her own.
“It is an area of resurgence in east Tulsa and it has brought a negative element to that effort, and it is impacting the area businesses in a negative way,” Dodson said.
Many of the neighborhood residents and business owners she’s heard from, Dodson said, believe the influx of people experiencing homelessness has led to more crime, and many have a growing sense that the area is becoming less safe.
Kishan Vashee, general manager of a nearby Quality Inn, spoke about Hotel to Housing with a mix of compassion and concern expressed often by business owners in the neighborhood.
“Obviously, we know people need help,” Vashee said. “That’s my main thing is: I am not looking for confrontation. I’m just looking for more control and more organization where there is some sort of guidance or some sort of control that the city has.”
Vashee said residents of the temporary housing hotel have come onto his property to ask customers for money or to look for cigarette butts. And some of the hotel’s outdoor ice machines have been vandalized.
“We found some people sleeping in some of our back-of-the-building hallways where the ice machines are,” Vashee said.
Part of Vashee’s frustration — and one expressed by other business owners in the area — is that he was never told about the temporary housing facility before it opened.
“We sort of found out through word of mouth,” he said.
Rogelio Moreno, manager of Puerto Bello Mexican Restaurant, said the increase in homeless in the area has hurt his business.
“They get scared when they see a lot of people walking around ... in this case homeless,” Moreno said of his customers. “They don’t want to go to that place (Puerto Bello).”
On a recent Sunday evening, a Hotel to Housing resident hit a customer’s car with something and damaged it, Moreno said.
“The customer was angry,” Moreno said. “He tried to call the police … this (homeless) guy was out of his mind.”
Crossbow Liquor operates out of a strip mall across the street from the hotel. Kristy Coe, the store’s general manager, said the homeless hanging out in front of the business asking for money have scared away some of her customers.
“It kind of intimidates our customers … so we have had to run them off; in fact, we do run them off,” she said. “I don’t think anyone has stolen anything.”
Coe said she understands that things happen and that people go through tough times.
“But there is a difference between wanting to actually help yourself and having somebody else do it all for you,” she said. “Those are the ones that we’re concerned (about) — they are just enjoying the ride and not wanting to help themselves.”
Two businesses in the area declined to comment publicly but said they’d encountered no problems with the homeless; three businesses declined to be interviewed for this story, or did not return calls for comment.
Gligo acknowledged that area businesses were not notified before Hotel to Housing opened in early March but said Housing Solutions understands their concerns and is working to help address them.
“We are there to partner with those businesses, and we have done some proactive outreach to local businesses and had great results,” Gligo said. “So I would encourage any businesses with concerns to reach out to us. We’re there to be a partner and to be a good neighbor.”
City Councilor Lori Decter Wright, whose district includes the Hotel to Housing, said she supports the program and that she has not received any complaints about it.
“For the first time in my service as a city councilor, I have not been getting regular complaints about homeless people,” Wright said. “So I feel like the ones who may have been causing problems for neighborhoods or businesses, through that weather event, they got put into a process now where they are sheltered and working through wrap-around services to connect to whatever the next steps are for them.”
Dodson said she hopes Hotel to Housing achieves its goal and that everyone living there can be placed in permanent housing, but she has her doubts.
“You’ve got a portion of that population that genuinely don’t want to make the changes that are necessary for them to stabilize and don’t want to follow the guidelines and the recommendations required to work into (permanent housing),” Dodson said. “Whether it be mental health treatment or addiction treatment or those issues that also impact homelessness.”
Gligo said the hotel residents were required to sign a participants agreement pledging to actively work to secure permanent housing.
“So I would disagree with the idea that there are people there who are unwilling to do what they need to do to be successful,” she said.
Asked what the solution is, Dodson said she’s not sure why the temporary shelter wasn’t set up closer to downtown, where many social service agencies have their facilities.
It’s not quite that simple, according to Gligo.
“What we do know is that forcing people to shop social services rather than having everything easily accessible to them and bringing services to the person, is not as effective as what we’re doing at the hotel by having the services in place,” she said. “This is a holistic program; it is not just putting people in a hotel and having them sit around for a while.”
One important point to remember about the Hotel to Housing program, Gligo added, is that it’s new to Tulsa.
“And new can make people feel uncomfortable,” she said. “We know that proximity is powerful, but it can also cause some natural tension, and so we cannot be successful in this endeavor without the full support of the community.
“So if there are questions we can answer, if there are people who want to get involved, if there are ideas for things that we can do to be even more effective … my door is open, and I am more than willing to work toward solutions.”
Gligo can be reached at Housingsolutions@Housingsolutionsstulsa.org.