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Efforts to criminalize homelessness growing in Oklahoma

Volunteer surveyor, Jennifer Sylvester, attempts to make contact with people experiencing homelessness in Oklahoma City for the Point in Time survey in 2020.
Kateleigh Mills
Volunteer surveyor, Jennifer Sylvester, attempts to make contact with people experiencing homelessness in Oklahoma City for the Point in Time survey in 2020.

A national push to criminalize homelessness is impacting the state as cities and lawmakers introduce policies aimed at regulating encampments and other support for unhoused Oklahomans, legal experts say.

Efforts to criminalize homelessness through tickets, fines or arrests aren’t new, but have increased in the last few years partly as a result of the issue becoming more visible due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to an analysis from the National Homeless Law Center.

According to the center, which has tracked legislation across the country since the 1990s, Oklahoma’s push to punish homelessness is moderate compared to other state legislatures which have passed laws forcing homeless people to get mental health treatment or attempted to ban camping on state-owned land or criminalize sleeping on sidewalks.

Still in the past few years, there’s been growing efforts across Oklahoma to regulate everything from homeless encampments to panhandling to feeding unhoused residents.

“Criminalization doesn’t work,” said Eric Tars, senior policy director for the center. “If it did, there would be no homeless people.”

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, Oklahoma’s unsheltered homeless population has increased by 15% over a decade. It has steadily risen since 2015. Estimates show 1,317 people were living on the streets in 2022.

Politicians said they’re feeling increasing pressure from constituents to address homelessness in their communities.

In the past two years, two GOP state lawmakers have led unsuccessful legislative efforts to address homeless encampments. Two Senate bills would have effectively banned the encampments by requiring them to comply with building codes. One of them also required cities to monitor encampments for possible contamination of city water supplies.

Sen. Rob Standridge, R-Norman, who ran one of the measures, said in an email that his Norman constituents are concerned with crime and sanitation.

“This is very difficult as we have court decisions that seek to prevent mistreatment of all citizens, including homeless, and this is not necessarily bad, but makes addressing the issue difficult,” Standridge said.

Cities’ take steps to ban homelessness

City leaders in Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Shawnee and Norman have also tried to tackle the issue by passing local ordinances.

A poll in Tulsa, by the Cicero Institute, found its residents favor tougher policies like forced treatment for mentally ill homeless people and prioritized funding for those services over subsidized housing. Nearly half of Tulsans also disapproved of the city council’s handling of the issue.

The institute presses for what it calls “system-wide accountability and real solutions” to homelessness. It calls for banning unauthorized street camping, paying nonprofits based on performance, and amending civil commitment laws for homeless people suffering from “chronic and untreated mental illness.”

Cicero officials did not return a message seeking comment.

State Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa, who is also running for mayor, said his city’s homeless population is growing and residents are frustrated. The most recent data for Tulsa County shows homelessness grew by 6.6% in 2022.

The issue needs more attention from city and state leaders, Nichols said.

“I think one of the biggest challenges we continue to face is this balancing between having services that are widely and immediately available and matching that with anything we might do on the enforcement side,” he said.

The state should be a partner with cities to help fund housing solutions and treatment services that address the underlying causes of homelessness, Nichols said.

Norman business owners have urged city leaders to crack down on homelessness amid complaints about panhandling, encampments and violent crimes in the wake of two recent stabbings and one shooting that police said involved homeless people. The city’s homeless population is up by 16 people from the previous year.

Norman Mayor Larry Heikkila said there is often little the city can do to address some of those complaints, such as panhandling.

“Constituents have complained to me about panhandling, but the Supreme Court has said panhandling is freedom of speech, ” Heikkila said.

It can also be difficult to evict encampments because it’s not against the law to be homeless, he said.

Shawnee recently passed an ordinance that limits feeding four or more homeless people without a permit in the downtown area. Tars, with the homeless law center, believes it’s unconstitutional because the restriction violates the right to free assembly, freedom of speech and when performed as part of religious beliefs, also violates religious expression.

Shawnee City Manager Andrea Weckmueller-Behringer did not respond to phone and email messages seeking comment.

Efforts to criminalize homelessness in Oklahoma City have failed in recent years, including a panhandling ban on public easement like medians. It was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The city has since pledged to invest millions of dollars in affordable housing initiatives to end homelessness. City leaders declined to approve camping bans on public and private property last year.

Some cities’ policies overlook long-term solutions that could lead to far better outcomes, said Dan Straughan, executive director of the Homeless Alliance. The nonprofit assists people out of homelessness through partnerships with housing advocacy groups.

“City councils view themselves as having relatively few tools in their tool belt,” Straughan said. “Their kind of knee-jerk response is, ‘Well, we’ll just pass an ordinance to outlaw that’ when there may be more constructive ways to address that.”

He suggested city leaders partner with nonprofit organizations to boost affordable housing supply rather than filling up jails at taxpayer expense.

Oklahoma Voice is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oklahoma Voice maintains editorial independence.

Mindy covers the legislature for Oklahoma Voice. Her areas of focus include infrastructure, municipal government policies, and human services with an emphasis on the needs of intellectually vulnerable and physically challenged adults.
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