Finding the way home

Can an innovative new approach to case management eradicate chronic homelessness in Tulsa? Local agencies are working together to find out.



(page 1 of 3)

In many ways, Tulsa saved John Ross’ life.

Before moving here in 2007, Ross was living in Oklahoma City and facing an onslaught of challenges. He was in a relationship with a woman addicted to drugs and alcohol. He was depressed, still carrying the emotional burden of a wife who died in a car wreck in 1981. He used drugs to numb his pain.

He says he felt so trapped in the relationship that he thought his only way to get away from her was to go to prison. Arrested for drug possession in 2005, he spent only one weekend in jail, but the “felony” stamp on his record ended his 25-year information technology career. While he was away, his girlfriend left, taking all of his possessions with her.

After his release, Ross secured an apartment and car, just to lose nearly all of his belongings in a home robbery. Forced to live in his pickup truck, he missed a court date and once again found himself in jail. When he was released, he lived in a cardboard box and, later, thanks to a new job with an ice cream company, the back of an ice cream truck.

When that company asked Ross to return to Tulsa, he jumped at the chance, but after making his way here, drugs found him again and he landed back in jail, the result of unpaid parking tickets. He began his sentence at the Tulsa County Jail and was transferred to the Oklahoma County Jail. Once Ross was released, a judge allowed him to return to Tulsa. This time, though, he knew he had just one more chance to turn his life around. So he met with his probation officer, who recommended that he visit The Salvation Army Center of Hope and “take advantage of everything they had to offer,” Ross says.

The Center of Hope assigned Ross a case manager, who helped him set personal recovery goals. He joined Narcotics Anonymous to overcome his drug addiction, received counseling from Family and Children’s Services to address his depression and — after successfully completing the necessary levels of life skills courses — became part of The Salvation Army’s Project ABLE, providing him with temporary housing and an opportunity to attend Tulsa Community College.

Once lacking a support system, Ross now lives among a community of other men who have faced similar challenges. 

Deeply moved by the help he received from The Salvation Army and other agencies, Ross wanted to find a way to give back. So, as part of a class project at Tulsa Community College, where he is pursuing an associate’s degree, he decided to produce and direct a documentary about the experiences of homeless people in Tulsa, specifically fellow Project ABLE participants. The resulting film, “How Sally Changed My Life,” premiered at Circle Cinema in October 2009.

Ross says he wanted to give people like him an opportunity to share their stories and alleviate misconceptions associated with homelessness.

“(I wanted) to bring awareness to the situation and that there are other alternatives besides putting somebody into an apartment and saying they’re not homeless anymore,” he says. “There are issues why people become homeless, and if you don’t resolve those issues … in the first place, they’re destined to become chronically homeless.”

The new face of homelessness

According to local homeless services providers, the causes of homelessness are changing.

Once homeless, John Ross is now a participant in The Salvation 
Army’s Project ABLE program, lives at the organization’s Center of Hope 
and attends Tulsa Community College. He has captured the experiences of 
fellow Project ABLE participants in the documentary "How Sally 
Changed My Life."Sandra Lewis, executive director of the Tulsa Day Center for the Homeless, a downtown shelter that provides a safe environment and opportunities for self-sufficiency for Tulsa’s homeless population, says she is seeing a new face of homelessness. Many of these Day Center clients are reeling from the national economic crisis and seeking help for the first time. Some have been laid off and, as a result, are struggling to pay their bills. Others had an extended illness or sick child and could not recover from the lost income.

She has helped couples, families and people with college degrees and varied job experiences.

“It’s been really amazing,” she says.

Officials at The Salvation Army are seeing similar trends. The numbers first began to jump in 2009, says Arletta Robinson, executive director of the Center of Hope, The Salvation Army’s downtown facility that houses the organization’s social service programs. Already in 2010, the number of total meals served at the Center of Hope has increased by 59 percent over 2006 and the number of total nights lodging has increased by 48 percent.

“Those are huge, huge increases,” Robinson says.

Although a variety of factors have affected these numbers, Robinson says the economy has played a significant role. Like Lewis, Robinson has seen many first-time service users.

“We’re hearing from our guests, ‘I’ve given for years. I never thought I’d need services,’” Robinson says.

In addition to the growth of families seeking services, Robinson says the homeless population is also getting younger.

Twenty-four years ago, when she began working in social services, the average age of homeless individuals in Tulsa was 55. Now, the range is 25-45, and more people in their 20s are seeking help.

“Young people just do not have a support system for a wide variety of reasons — our society, our economy, life,” she says.

The reality of these trends hit hard on Thanksgiving 2009 for Maj. Roy Williams, Salvation Army Tulsa area commander, as he watched a TV reporter interview a family at the Center of Hope. The reporter spoke with a father, mother and their two young children, who were eating their holiday meal there.

They told the reporter that the husband had recently lost his job. The family quickly saw their savings disappear and, soon, their three-bedroom home. Before they knew it, they found themselves living at the Center of Hope and working to regain their previous lifestyle.

“That’s what’s happening to people,” Williams says. “They have had the American dream, and then they lost their job.”

The growth in Tulsa’s homeless population is not limited to the last few years. The number of people spending nights in area homeless shelters has been growing exponentially for decades, says Jim Lyall, associate director of the Community Service Council of Greater Tulsa (CSC).

The CSC has been counting the local homeless population daily since the 1980s. Then, on average 250 people spent their nights in shelters. Now, 550 do. These nightly counts, which include the Center of Hope, the Day Center, John 3:16 Mission, Youth Services and others, reveal that over a year, approximately 4,000 people use the local shelter system.

The majority — about 2,800 — are what Lyall calls “situationally homeless,” one- or two-time homeless system users.

They have faced a hardship and, with assistance from social services, can regain housing, employment and security. But there is another homeless population in Tulsa that poses a different set of challenges.

The chronically homeless

The most commonly used term is “chronically homeless,” according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), an “unaccompanied disabled individual who has been continuously homeless for over one year or has had four episodes of homelessness in the last three years.”

Michael Brose, executive director of the Mental Health Association in Tulsa.Local agency leaders, however, tend to bristle when the word “chronic” is mentioned. As Lyall notes, the term “chronic” implies that a person cannot move past homelessness. Rather, he refers to these individuals as “hard to house” or “challenging to house.”

Tulsa has 206 chronically homeless individuals, according to recent counts, and those at agencies that serve them can list most of them by name.

When walking into the Day Center, it’s quickly evident which clients are situationally homeless and which have reached a chronic level, says Michael Brose, executive director of the Mental Health Association in Tulsa (MHAT).  

“I always say, if it walks like a duck and it quacks (like a duck),” he says. “You can just see people who’ve become chronically homeless. They’ve aged. We see them every day.”

Although these 206 individuals represent just 17 percent of the 30 percent of those who are homeless more than once or twice, they consume 80 percent of resources, including local donations and federal HUD funds, as well as the time and finances of agencies, Brose says.

The factors that set the chronically homeless apart are more complicated than those facing the situationally homeless.
They tend to remain in the homeless services system longer and face conditions ranging from behavioral to economic to health challenges. All interfere with their ability to secure consistent housing, Lyall says.

Often, the chronically homeless individual has endured decades of hardships, including child abuse, displacement from a home, trauma during a military experience, low self-esteem incurred as a result of poor school performance, mental illness “or other conditions that have prevented them from moving forward,” Lyall says.

Some have spent their lives in generational poverty, Williams says, a concept that is difficult for those who have not had those experiences to comprehend.

“I’ve had people celebrating they’ve got their child on SSI (Supplemental Security Income),” he says. “That’s a perfect (example of) generational poverty. They make their child think that’s the way it should be.”

For these clients, learning to manage finances and pay bills in a timely manner is a milestone. Many also lack the traditional safety nets — credit, savings, help from family members or friends — that can protect them in the case of a financial setback, such as job loss, an extended illness or a major car repair.

“The small things for us that are just a bump in the road … for them, it means they’re getting behind on their light payment, they’re getting behind on their rent payment and eventually it leads to (their termination) and they’re at our front door,” Williams says.

Complex causes

Two major contributors to chronic homelessness are mental illness and substance abuse. According to some studies, as many as one-third of homeless individuals are mentally ill and as many as 70 percent of cases also face drug or alcohol addiction, says Greer Fites, director of homeless services for Family & Children’s Services (FCS).

Often, the stigma of mental illness keeps individuals from seeking treatment, and they begin to rely on street drugs rather than prescriptions. 

“Sometimes the illness itself tells you you’re not sick,” Fites says. “It gets in the way as well.”

Each day, FCS Homeless Outreach Team members visit the Day Center to offer screenings. Team members have seen a variety of severe illnesses, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, severe depression and schizoaffective disorder, Fites says.

If they detect that a client suffers from a severe mental illness, the individual goes to the FCS office for a full intake and diagnosis. At that point, case managers can help the client develop a treatment plan; set up appointments with a therapist for therapy and a psychiatrist to prescribe needed medications; or connect the client with substance abuse services. The case manager has ongoing contact with the client to help with housing, clothing and other basic needs.

For those who need more intensive care, FCS created CO-PACT (the Program of Assertive Community Treatment for Co-Occurring Disorders) to treat homeless adults with mental health and substance abuse disorders. In place since 2005, the CO-PACT model goes to where homeless individuals gather — from bridges to streets to homeless encampments, Fites says. Once a case manager has developed a relationship with an individual, he or she can provide treatment, rehabilitation and support services, helping to prevent incarceration or hospitalization and remove barriers to affordable housing.

“Us (CO-PACT) taking the initiative really helps in encouraging people to take advantage of services,” Fites says.

The costs of chronic homelessness range from hospital bills to emergency fees to incarceration and substance abuse treatment. Homelessness can also affect a community’s sense of itself when a large, sustained population of homeless individuals is visible, including the mentally ill, veterans and some ethnic minority populations, Lyall says, prompting many in the community to ask, “Why them?”

The first step, Brose says, is identifying housing. It is a myth that the chronically homeless choose to live that way, he says. Often, when he asks a chronically homeless individual what he or she needs to take the next step, the answer is, “I need a place to live.”

“We need to get them in shelter first so they can think about other things,” Brose says.

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