City of Tulsa officials say that people experiencing homelessness who have set up encampments on West Archer Street will not be pushed to move until the opening of an emergency shelter in the former Juvenile Detention Center on Gilcrease Museum Road scheduled for next week.
In a Wednesday release, the city said they are targeting a Tuesday, Sept. 8th, opening at the facility for daytime services such as meals, showers, restrooms, and meeting with case managers, with capacity to serve about 150 people per day. Later in the month, they expect to be able to offer about 55 overnight shelter beds.
"We do recognize that a former jail is not an ideal environment, but these are extraordinary circumstances and we're grateful for an indoor space to serve folks in need," the release says.
Becky Gligo, housing policy director for the city of Tulsa and interim executive director of the separate, independent nonprofit Housing Solutions, said Thursday that while true numbers on homelessness in Tulsa haven't meaningfully increased this year, people experiencing homelessness are more visible during the COVID-19 pandemic because public health measures in existing shelters have shrunk their capacity, leading to more people living unhoused around town.
Gligo said the stretch of Archer near the Salvation Army, where an outreach team on Tuesday counted 31 people experiencing homelessness, has gotten attention from the public and media.
"We've gotten a lot of citizen concerns about the wellbeing of folks that are out there," Gligo said. "Homelessness is far more visible than it usually is to the average Tulsan, so people are concerned."
On Tuesday, the Tulsa World reported Ofc. Jeanne Pierce, Tulsa Police Department public information officer, said the department would be issuing citations to unhoused individuals who don't leave after being given warnings. Gligo said Thursday that she had since received assurances from Major Matt McCord, who oversees TPD's Gilcrease Division, that no enforcement action would be taken by the department until the emergency shelter opens and individuals have secured a safe place to stay.
"Individuals will not be displaced without other options and this is not being handled by Tulsa Police (there will not be arrests or citations)," the city's statement reads. "Shelter options will be utilized for those people moving from Archer."
TPD's Pierce confirmed this as correct on Thursday, saying in an email that "we are not involved in the clean up efforts. We will be dispatched if there is a disturbance and/or a citizen has an issue on private property."
Gligo said any efforts undertaken will be centered around "human dignity and housing as a human right," not beautification or urban economic development, as recently suggested by TPD Maj. Mark Wollmershauser was a motivating factor in enforcement.
"I don't ever want to think of our neighbors that are living in vulnerable positions detracting from the beautification of our city. They're our neighbors, and they're a part of what makes us great," Gligo said.
According to the city, more than 350 individuals have been placed in permanent housing this year. Gligo called on developers to rent to people experiencing homelessness.
"We have subsidies, we have rent payments that we can offer them, so them opening up space and accepting somebody who was previously homeless or unsheltered is a great way for us to really make homelessness very brief and non-reoccurring."
"The only cure for homelessness is housing, so we need as many units as we can find available," Gligo said.