First-time homeless in Tulsa facing unexpected trials
BY BILL SHERMAN & MIKE AVERILL World Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 08, 2010
9/08/10 at 3:49 AM
Tiffany Johnson, who is six months pregnant and the mother of 4- and 2-year-old girls, found herself homeless for the first time recently when she and her husband split up and she had to take leave from work.
She's been spending her nights at The Salvation Army and her days at the Tulsa Day Center for the Homeless while she works to find a permanent residence.
"It's scary. For me, being myself it wouldn't be so bad but I got the girls and that's the part that broke my heart," she said. "It's a lot better than being on the streets."
Johnson is one of about 400 people a day who use the center, including more and more first-time homeless people who never imagined they'd be in that situation, said Executive Director Sandra Lewis during a recent panel on hunger at Trinity Episcopal Church.
The same can be said at Iron Gate where nearly half of the clients at the downtown soup kitchen are not traditional homeless people, but are casualties of the recession, said Iron Gate director Connie Cronley.
"These are people who have never sought help before," Cronley said, people with children, people recently evicted or laid off.
She said she organized the panel of social service experts to talk about how the economy has affected Tulsa.
"When does this end? When will we see good news?" she asked.
Panelist Pat Woodrum, Trinity member and former executive director of the Tulsa City-County Library, traced the recent history of homelessness in Tulsa.
"The library has always been a place where homeless people go during the day," she said.
Until the recession in the mid-1980s, it was not a problem.
But on a snowy day in 1985, the downtown library was deluged with grocery carts and people bathing and washing clothes in the bathrooms.
Realizing it was a symptom of a larger problem, Woodrum called a meeting of social service agencies, who began to study the homelessness problem and what was being done about it across the nation.
As a result, in January 1986, the Day Center for the Homeless opened, modeled after a shelter in Denver, Woodrum said.
Lewis said many area homeless are young people, often suffering disabilities, who are angry and can be difficult to manage.
Lewis said she also is seeing more seniors seeking aid, people without a family support system, including people who are being released from nursing homes into shelters.
Incidents of violence by the homeless are rare, she said, but they are 13 percent more likely to be victims of violence than other people, and often are reluctant to report crimes against them.
She said the Day Center houses about 125 people at night. All of them are required to be involved with a case manager to help get them off the street.
She said statistics indicate that people who are quickly put back into a home are less likely to become homeless again.
The Day Center is raising money now to buy 60 apartments that will provide permanent housing for the homeless, she said.
"That's our next step. We're doing all that we can to help people become self-sufficient."
Panelist Michael Brose, executive director of the Mental Health Association in Tulsa, said "H" is the new scarlet letter, a reference to a classic book about branding women with the letter "A" as adulterers.
"Don't get me wrong," he said. "There's a little NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) in all of us."
Brose said providing stable housing for people gives them a foundation from which they can deal with other issues in their lives such as employment.
"If we can stabilize them for six months, they begin to thrive, to re-integrate into the community," he said.
He said he occasionally runs into former homeless people he helped whom he does not recognize because they look so much better.
Brose is involved in a new initiative, A Way Home for Tulsa, that brings together many agencies, churches and ministries to tackle the complex problem of chronic homelessness that no one agency can solve alone. He said many people are temporarily homeless, but far fewer are chronically homeless.
"Our goal is to end chronic homeless in Tulsa. It's doable," he said.
Panelist Monica Barczak, with the Community Action Project and chairman of the Iron Gate board, said many Tulsa families are in trouble because there is a huge gap between their income and the income required for a minimum to modest standard of living.
A one-parent family with two young children requires just less than $40,000 a year income to get by, she said, which equates to a full-time job at $18.93 an hour.
"A lot of people aren't making that kind of money," she said.
That means that various programs are needed to make up the difference.
But the federal poverty level income is only $18,310, and many government programs in Oklahoma require that people make less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level.
She said the median household income in Oklahoma is $39,000.
Original Print Headline: Reaching out for help
Bill Sherman 581-8398 Mike Averill 581-8489
With daughter Stormy Johnson, 2, asleep in a donated double stroller next to her, Tiffany Johnson sorts through clothes as her daughter Angel Jones, 4, plays with toys in the Family Room of the Tulsa Day Center for the Homeless. She has been using the Day Center services as well as The Salvation Army next door for a week after she separated from her husband. MICHAEL WYKE/Tulsa World
Iron Gate board chair
Day Center for the Homeless
former executive director, Tulsa City-County Library
Mental Health Association in Tulsa
Tiffany Johnson talks about the circumstances that brought her to seek charity services help as her daughter Angel Jones, 4, looks on. Johnson has been using the Day Center services as well as The Salvation Army for a week after she separated from her husband. MICHAEL WYKE/Tulsa World
Iron Gate director