A mutual aid group that has been providing assistance to Tulsans experiencing homelessness over the course of recent severe winter weather says the city of Tulsa is being disingenuous in their characterizations of an encampment and its residents.
Tulsa Food Not Bombs describes itself as an "autonomous collective" that believes in "direct action mutual aid, solidarity not charity, and that food is a right, not a privilege." Members said they were drawn to a longstanding encampment of people experiencing homelessness after a man died of exposure downtown near the Salvation Army building near Denver Avenue and Archer Street last Thursday and weather forecasts called for more life-threatening cold to come.
"We didn't want to just come in and, you know, try to be saviors of the situation," said Jules, a member of the group who requested her last name not be used. (The group said they have been threatened with arrest for their outreach efforts and "slandered" by city officials.)
"We wanted to ask them what their needs were, if they were willing to go to shelters, what we could do in the meantime to help them, if they would like us to stay and kind of set up a supply line for them and get them resources, and they agreed that that is what they would like to do," she said.
Jules said the group solicited donations of blankets, food, firewood, hand warmers and other items for the residents of the camp, and church groups and individuals dropped those things off. Jules said volunteers offered their running vehicles as warming stations for the roughly 30 people who typically live at the encampment.
On Saturday, Jules said city officials, including members of the Tulsa Fire Department and Tulsa Police Department, initially did periodic checks for fire hazards and other safety issues, which were addressed as they came up to the officials' satisfaction, but that when night fell city representatives became more antagonistic towards volunteers and residents.
"A bulldozer showed up to the camp," Jules said. "They did not bulldoze camp or anything like that. A few of the volunteers kind of ran out in front of the bulldozer, 'What are you doing? You can't do this. We have permission to be here, don't do this.' And then the bulldozer just left."
"And it was shortly after that ... that a city employee and police department representative came ... and things started getting shut down."
In a Sunday Facebook post, Mayor G.T. Bynum suggested efforts like Food Not Bombs' to solicit heat sources were "discouraging those experiencing homelessness from seeking shelter." At a Monday press conference, the mayor said the city had not acted maliciously in seizing firewood from the site.
"Outreach workers worked to get everyone from that encampment into shelter," Bynum said. "After that had occurred and the camp had been vacated, the fire marshal determined that there were about four dumptruck loads worth of scrap lumber and wood meant for burning underneath a highway bridge. That's where this encampment was located, under a highway bridge. The fire marshal felt that that presented an imminent danger and directed for it to be removed."
"The city of Tulsa is not out preying on encampments and trying to steal firewood from people, but when the fire marshal says that there is an imminent danger, both to people who might come back to that campsite but also to a highway bridge, we have to take action," Bynum said. "And so we did."
Jules said the mayor's account is wrong: There were still a number of residents at the encampment at the time of the seizure, and that volunteers never once discouraged individuals from seeking shelter.
"The people who immediately wanted to go, we either coordinated with Housing Solutions Tulsa or, if we were able to meet that need immediately, we helped them get into shelters and hotels immediately," she said.
Jules said some residents were worried their belongings would be taken if they left, or of violent arrest if they refused to clear the camp, so volunteers promised to stay at the site to watch their possessions, which they have continued to do.
"We have been very, very diligent about telling people we will stay here, we will watch your things, we don't want you to worry about that, we want you to go into the shelter, we want you to go into the hotel," she said. "We know it's not any question or debate that being inside is absolutely the best thing right now."
But she said many in the encampment were and are hesitant to accept help from traditional sources, like shelters and city outreach workers, due to abuse, neglect and other trauma.
"There is sort of this policy of, 'It has to happen our way or it can't happen at all,' and for a lot of folks out on the street, the way that that unfolds is very reminiscent to them of a lot of traumatic events," she said.
Bynum has acknowledged the reality that many unhoused people have had negative experiences with city shelters and institutions, but has expressed support primarily for homeless outreach professionals and their approaches. To that end, the mayor introduced a proposal Monday for $130,000 in federal coronavirus relief aid to go to Housing Solutions, and the city says it has allocated $3.8 million of its CARES Act funds to homelessness-related efforts.
Food Not Bombs said they support the efforts of organizations like Housing Solutions and worked with them over the crises of this month's weather -- but they both fill a need.
"Just like what the city has said about contacting Housing Solutions, they have those resources for a reason -- they are incredibly busy and stretched very thin right now, and we definitely understand and respect that," Jules said.
"If we are able to immediately meet that need, then we just go ahead and take the initiative so they are not out there in the cold a little bit longer," she said.