The U.S. Census helps determine how much federal aid each state gets, but it’s not the only population count that happens. Every year, in late January, volunteers spread out across Oklahoma City to find people who often don’t want to be counted.
In the early hours of the morning, volunteer surveyors meet at the Homeless Alliance, an organization in Oklahoma City that works to end homelessness. The lobby is packed with people who are going to conduct the annual one-day Point in Time survey. This provides the city and other organizations a snapshot of what homelessness is like in OKC.
Before the volunteer groups begin, bus passes are handed out. These can be really helpful incentives to have for people experiencing homelessness who may not have a car.
Stacy Tarpley works for the City of Oklahoma City. She has been surveying people experiencing homelessness in OKC since 2015.
“We’re required every year to at least count our sheltered population. We’re required every other year to count our unsheltered population," Tarpley said. "We go ahead and count both sheltered and unsheltered every year just so we can get the data, we feel like it just helps us, we’re able to see the fluctuation year to year.”
The survey is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for communities to receive Homeless Assistance grants.
Oklahoma City has been conducting the survey since 2003. Last year, more than 1,200 people said they were experiencing homelessness, and 22% of them have been without shelter for most of the last year.
“We’ve gotten much much more elaborate, much more robust, much more comprehensive in the last 4 or 5 years than we were early on," Dan Straughan, executive director of the Homeless Alliance, said.
He said the Homeless Alliance and another half-dozen organizations do coordinated outreach months before the survey to map out where OKC homeless camps are. The week before Point in Time surveying - volunteers will go out again to see if there are any new camps or update ones that may no longer exist.
Straughan said some of the more successful efforts of getting people to complete the survey have to do with the types of incentives offered. This year there were bus passes, hygiene bags and winter gear for those who needed it.
The first camp the surveyors try to reach is blocked by a creek that has a box spring and an ottoman floating in it. Stacy said they'll have to go around the creek to find a way in – which is detailed in a packet she carries around with maps.
Straughan said there were more than 250 volunteers throughout the day - with 90 people who signed up for the earlies shift that began at 4 a.m.
Carter, one of the surveyors, is there in case we find any veterans. He said he participated in the Point In Time count last year, but not during the early morning shift.
“But that opened my eyes to what – like how big our homeless population is. It’s just a good way to see what our veterans are experiencing," Carter said.
The surveyors find Bryan and his wife Autumn as they sleep in a tent. Bryan tells them he has been homeless for two and a half years.
Since 2015, the number of people sleeping outside in Oklahoma City has increased by nearly 200. A new addition to the Point in Time survey this year included an event for homeless youth.
“We just weren’t satisfied with the kind of numbers we were getting - so this year we had a party, with live music and free pizza," Straughan said.
The event took place in the Plaza District. It was added specifically to count a population that tends to make a great effort of not being found.
Straughan said the event brought roughly 40 youth out - but he said he thinks they can do better in the future.
The survey results for 2020 will take several months to process before it can be released to the public, but the data will likely be something city and state leaders lean on as they move forward.
In 2019, Oklahoma City voters, in an effort to combat homelessness, approved an investment of $50 million dollars in affordable housing through the MAPS program, and the Governor’s Council on Homelessness released a five-year plan to holistically address the issue.
Statewide, more than 4,000 people don’t have regular shelter.