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Nonprofit coalition urges mayor to abandon proposed ordinance targeting Tulsans experiencing homelessness

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A group of area nonprofits delivered a letter to Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum on Wednesday, urging him to rescind a proposed ordinance they say would criminalize homelessness and, ultimately, worsen the city's problem of unsheltered homelessness.

"The citizens of Tulsa, the Tulsa philanthropic community, and our policy leaders, including you, have made great strides in addressing homelessness," reads the letter to Bynum, penned by A Way Home For Tulsa Chair Melanie Stewart. "Tulsa is not only a leader in our state but in our nation in our approaches to this issue. This proposed change in ordinance puts that momentum and progress at great risk."

The letter was sent on behalf of 16 organizations, including Housing Solutions, the Tulsa Day Center, the Community Service Council, Youth Services of Tulsa, the City Lights Foundation of Oklahoma, and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies.

The letter says the ordinance, which would outlaw the occupation of certain spaces, would break down trust between service providers and people experiencing homelessness, disproportionately harm vulnerable communities, be more expensive than more effective methods of combatting homelessness, and likely open the city up to legal action.

"Instead of pursuing a policy that will ultimately hurt Tulsans at the cost of Tulsans, we are asking you to consider using the time and resources that enforcing this policy and defending it in court will cost our community on proven alternatives including the strategies outlined in the City of Tulsa’s Affordable Housing Strategy and the A Way Home for Tulsa Strategic Plan," the letter reads.

At a meeting of the Tulsa City Council's committee on public works Wednesday, several homelessness service professionals and organizational leaders testified about the current state of homelessness in Tulsa County, noting that while the overall number of known individuals experiencing homelessness in the county is down from 2020 numbers, those individuals are more visible because a higher proportion of them are living unsheltered compared to those staying in shelters.

Becky Gligo, executive director of Housing Solutions, said the ordinance the mayor has put forward would only exacerbate the problem, because being justice-involved is the number one barrier to accessing housing.

"So we do believe that this will result in an uptick of people with criminal records in our community, and make it even harder to house them," Gligo said. "And we don't believe it's a permanent solution to the crisis that we fully acknowledge that you're seeing, which is very ill people in very public places without a place to go."

Terri White, CEO of Mental Health Association Oklahoma, a signatory to the letter, told councilors the ordinance was likely to be found unconstitutional.

"Ordinances like this have been tried in other cities, they were challenged in other cities, and the cities lost every time," White said.

Reached for comment Wednesday, Bynum said, "My focus today is on the City’s pending budget vote this evening. I have not had time to give the letter in question the consideration it deserves, so can not comment on it at this time."

The mayor's office did not respond to a follow-up request for comment on Thursday morning. In May, Bynum expressed frustration that homelessness services providers and advocates were publicly criticizing the ordinance.

Chris joined Public Radio Tulsa as a news anchor and reporter in April 2020. He’s a graduate of Hunter College and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, both at the City University of New York.