Like any city its size, Tulsa has a homeless problem. It's a comparatively small problem for a city of its size, but the problem exists nonetheless.
The compassion and generosity of many Tulsans goes a long way toward helping many of them, but where appeals to altruism fall short, some homeless advocates are trying to appeal to business interests to take up the slack.
"We're not just talking about lives--we're talking about economic development and business sense," said the Mental Health Association in Tulsa's Executive Director Mike Brose last week during a presentation to the City Council.
Brose and his associates explained to councilors that, while almost 600 homeless people can be found dwelling in the streets of Tulsa on any given night, that number is about to increase significantly if nothing is done, which will take an immense toll on the city's economic future.
Brose said two "central converging community dynamics" point to the need for public and private intervention to address the housing and service needs of Tulsa's chronically homeless population.
The first is the planned opening of the new BOk Center next year.
"The close proximity of the new BOk Center and the large concentration of Tulsa's chronically homeless population in the very near vicinity of each other could potentially feed negative perceptions of the area in the minds of downtown visitors," said Brose.
Continued downtown economic development, he said, depends on projecting the perception of downtown as "a safe area that is ready for the development of new business and urban-style living."
"The economic development of downtown will never happen until we deal with housing first, and get the chronically homeless off the streets," said Gail Richards of Zarrow Families Foundations, one of MHA's philanthropic partners.
Secondly, the downtown YMCA is expected to close by 2010.
Brose said a fire marshal mandate that sprinklers be installed by that date guarantees the closure of the facility by 2010 at the latest, as the expense of installing the equipment far exceeds what's justified, based on the building's age and capital costs.
As a result of the YMCA closing, along with its fully occupied "single room occupancy" residence facility, Tulsa's population will likely grow by 300 per year with no other affordable housing available, he forecast.
"Tulsa's shiny new image will be quickly tarnished without a permanent solution to chronic homelessness," Brose said.
A permanent solution, though, is precisely what he told city councilors could be achieved, if enough people take an interest.
"The effort has now begun that has created a private and public partnership that is coming together and is utilizing what we have learned and what we know about the provision of safe, affordable and decent housing for people to live," he said.
Numerous philanthropic, non-profit and faith-based groups are partnering with city and state agencies to "completely end chronic homelessness," he said, by the year 2012.
Brose and his cohorts are working to raise private funds from local and national charitable groups.
They're also trying to secure $10 million in state funding over the next two years.
Those funds, he said, would be used to implement the "Housing First" approach by providing affordable rental housing with supportive services such as case management, mental health and substance abuse services, health care and employment to get Tulsa's chronically homeless back on their feet.
He said the plan, if sufficient funds are raised, is to build 611 "scattered site type" housing units, at a cost of about $27 million.
While that might seem like a lot of money to some, it doesn't come close to the cost of inaction, Brose explained.
Since the chronically homeless often run the gamut from living on the streets, staying in shelters, getting incarcerated in jails or cared for in hospital emergency rooms, the costs of leaving them in that situation far outweigh the costs of rescuing them.
"The current research demonstrates that when people are left to live on the streets as homeless with untreated chronic mental illness, drug and alcohol dependency, serious health problems and other conditions, they utilize enormous amounts of public and private community resources, and do in fact contribute to the crime rate of the community," he said.
"These studies demonstrate that in real dollars it is much less expensive to provide a safe, affordable, decent place to live than to allow people to live homeless and on the streets, soaking up huge amounts of private funds," Brose also said.
He said, as of the late 1990s, the cost of each homeless shelter bed totaled $35,000 per year, and the costs per year to the correctional system for a single chronically homeless person was $15,650.
The cost of supported housing was only $12,000, which has a 70-80 percent chance of helping the person recover and become a self-sufficient tax-paying member of society, Brose said.
"First, what is the moral cost of ignoring homelessness or not addressing the problem? Ending homelessness is simply the right thing to do," said Brose.
"Secondly, the perceived economic negatives and hard dollar costs associated with the conditions surrounding it make homelessness of particular interest to the City of Tulsa," he also said.
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