Tulsa pushes ordinance criminalizing homelessness
Unsheltered individual sits on a bench during a winter storm (photo credit: Home Again Richmond)
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(photo credit: Home Again Richmond)

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An estimated nearly 1200 (1 in 330) Tulsans struggle with finding adequate access to housing on any given day. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the ever-looming potential of a mass-eviction crisis has only exacerbated this staggering reality. Housing advocates have recently expressed increased concern as state Republicans push legislation like HB1564, which would likely hasten evictions for families late on their rent across the state.

Complicating all of this is a life-threatening weather pattern taking hold of the city this week, one that will bring what the National Weather Service is calling “brutal cold” to Tulsa, with wind chills plummeting as low as twenty degrees below zero.

Over the past few days, brought to the forefront is the need for significant action to address the challenges Tulsans without housing face.

For Tyler Parette, a long-time housing advocate and the current Coordinated Outreach and Engagement Manager for Housing Solutions Tulsa, this elevated consciousness is welcomed. 

“We are seeing a level of collaboration we have never seen before,” said Parette, speaking to the increased efforts taken on by the city and community partners. Compounding crises have made the need for change so significant that he says Tulsa is “in an all-hands-on-deck type situation.”

Through Housing Solutions Tulsa, Parrett and his team are working to consolidate groups’ efforts across the city, engage in outreach, actively transport vulnerable folx to safe shelters, and collaborate with the city to halt sweeps of encampments in public spaces during the storm.

The group’s mission is simple: “make homelessness in Tulsa rare, brief and non-recurring.”

He sees the crisis as a complex and systemic one that requires a multi-faceted approach to solve, including additional public housing, advocacy, mental health, and substance misuse support and a greater emphasis on public trust.

This is why Parette cautions Tulsans that the crisis of homelessness is not one that will suddenly end when the storm passes, urging us all to “please, please remember this moment when it’s not 12 degrees outside.”

The increased consciousness of the crisis peaked this week, with many calling on the Mayor and the city to take longer-term action to shelter those in need and save lives in the extreme cold.

One of the organizations that have recently amplified calls for enhanced action is the Tulsa Community Fridge Project. On Monday, a social media post quickly spread widely as the organization “demands emergency shelter” for vulnerable Tulsans.

In a statement on Facebook Tuesday, Mayor GT Bynum announced that, in addition to warming stations downtown at John 3:16 Mission and The Salvation Army, the city was adding 57 more beds for overnight shelter at the old Juvenile Detention Center (for a max capacity of 116) in advance of the extreme weather.

The Tulsa Community Fridge Project started last year with a public refrigerator placed at Heirloom Rustic Ales in the Kendall Whittier neighborhood. Community members like Ana Barros noticed that, in a moment where food insecurity was soaring during COVID, significant amounts of food were still going to waste. 

The volunteer-run public fridge (open 24/7) relies on a “take what you need, leave what you can” model where anyone with leftover food is welcome to drop it off. Those facing food insecurities can come and collect food for themselves and their families.

In an interview with The Times, Barros said that the group felt compelled to take action to support houseless Tulsans after seeing the brutal shift in the weather approaching. 

“We’ve all been impacted in one way or another by the weather this week already,” she said, “and I just couldn’t stop thinking about our friends who are houseless. Eventually, all of this came to a head on Monday, and we realized we needed to act.”

Over the weekend, the Fridge Project installed a cabinet at Heirloom and began filling it with winter supplies. On Tuesday, they used their Instagram platform to solicit donations for warm clothing and gear to help those without shelter make it through the storm. The response was so tremendous that within 24 hours, the group posted on social media they had already received more than enough donations to meet their anticipated need.

For Barros, as the Tulsa Community Fridge Project expands to other locations, she hopes this ability for the community to help itself will show Tulsans what we can accomplish when we work together.

“Everyone has the talent to contribute to society. Even in this difficult situation, people are still able to give,” she told The Times. “My hope is that we continue to see each other as the remarkable helpers and givers we all are.”

Tyler Parrette of Housing Solutions Tulsa shares these sentiments and encourages all Tulsans who have been moved to action by the immediate crisis to continue their advocacy beyond this current moment.

“We need allies at the table beyond those directly engaged in the work to stand up and advocate for Tulsans in need,” he told the Times.

These systemic changes many are calling for, Parette notes, “will only happen when we realize we don’t have to be a city where homelessness is a given.”

If you are looking to support efforts to aid Tulsans struggling with housing insecurity, please check out the resources linked below:

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