NORMAN — In the early ’80s, the oil industry went bust and, unfortunately, Norman didn’t escape the perils of a rough economy.
With tent cities of homeless families living at Lake Thunderbird, Harriette Kemp’s heart was pulled into a direction that she knew she had to follow.
“What touched my heart was that the school-aged children could not attend school because they did not have a Norman address,” Kemp said. “I talked to my bridge partners and made the comment as to ‘What can one person do?’ My friend, Kathy Barret, said, ‘I am on a committee at church that is looking at this issue. Why don’t you come to the next meeting?’”
From there, an interdenominational task force was formed to assess the needs of Norman’s homeless population. A through the night shelter was open, but due to fire codes, the shelter was forced to close.
“So Capt. Glenn Olson of the Salvation Army said, ‘If they’re homeless, they are probably hungry. Let’s start a no-cost feeding program,’” Kemp said.
From there, the idea of Food and Shelter was born. Churches created a rotating potluck lunch and, at the time, 22 churches were involved in brining meals to Goodrich United Methodist Church on Monday and Friday.
“I was fortunate that the oil bust had not completely hit us and I was able to volunteer full-time for the first five years while the agency got off the ground,” Kemp said. “My husband, Edmond, got the 501(c)(3) paperwork done, and we served the first meals in March 1983. With a $10,000 FEMA grant, we started to shelter in a rented house on Symmes.”
Kemp is still exceedingly proud of the way Food and Shelter cares for those who need a helping hand.
“The way the organization has responded and expanded to the needs of the community is incredible. One can say that there is no reason anyone should go hungry in Norman. That is quite a statement,” Kemp said. “I remember when we first started, a friend asked me about 10 years, and I said, ‘If there is a need, we will still be filling that need.’”
To honor 30 years of serving Norman’s less fortunate, Food and Shelter Executive Director April Doshier said that earlier in the year, former board members and those involved since the United Way of Norman agency started gathered together.
“We reminisced about the past and shared our visions for the future and appreciated each other for all of the involvement they had,” Doshier said.
Serving about 220 meals a day, Doshier sees daily the impact that Food and Shelter has on Norman.
“I shudder to think what Norman would look like if Food and Shelter hadn’t started all of those years ago,” Doshier said. “When we talk to the people who come here every day, not just those who come because they are hungry but those who come because they are scared and confused and don’t know where else to turn, they tell us over and over again, ‘I’m really not sure what would happen if Food and Shelter wasn’t here.’
“There are mothers who have nowhere to go with their babies, and that little bit of time has been what it’s taken to grow into a stable, contributing member of our community. Being a part of our community and not being an isolated, invisible part of our community. Food and Shelter really takes people who would normally be invisible and have no voice and have no identity as a Norman resident and give them that community.”
As the agency honors its 30th year, Doshier said that the future also is something that the board takes very seriously.
“For so many years, Food and Shelter has been a respond to crisis agency. People who are at their worst time come to eat because they can’t plan for their future if they are worried about how they are going to eat,” Doshier said. “People who want to give their children a stable environment to live in have to have a place to start. Now we are looking at what are the long-term solutions.
“When people become homeless they don’t believe they are going to be homeless forever. They go into it and they think they will get back on their feet in a few days and then a few days turns into a month and then it turns into a year.
“The reason that they tell us that they struggle to get out of homelessness are a mountain of obstacles like lack of job skills, an inability to communicate to a potential employer.
“We’re focusing a great deal of our time from here, helping the people who come here with solutions to those mountain of obstacles. We’re going to do everything we can to limit the exposure to homelessness and keep kids off the streets and out of cars and out of shelters.”
Part of that plan is to introduce financial management classes and job skill classes to residents and guests of Food and Shelter.
Another area that Food and Shelter hopes to grow into is integrating the community into the agency.
“Our volunteers have come in and served food on the other side of the line for so long, and that has been what has kept us going. But now we want mentors and community members to come in and be involved on a more social level or on a more engaging level to give people the confidence and self-esteem and self worth to feel like they can move themselves forward,” Doshier said. “We want to bring in an expert in the community to share their guidance and wisdom on all kinds of things, legal issues, possible educational opportunities.
“So many of our residents and guest feel that education is so far out of their reach, but it is within everybody’s reach. They just need somebody to walk them through the process. It is very difficult to dream when your life has fallen out from underneath you. It’s our job to dream for them so they can eventually believe in themselves again.”
More housing opportunities is another area that Doshier said the agency is looking into.
“We need housing opportunities for people who are on disability income and will never have the level of income that it takes to rent their own place and will require support and care throughout the remainder of their lives,” Doshier said. “We need housing opportunities for families who are living on income that is below or barely above the poverty line and to be able to provide them a level of stability.
“We are looking at how do we provide these housing opportunities for people? There are two major obstacles, if we are ever going to put a dent in the homeless issue, and one is affordable housing and two is jobs.
“We are looking at how can we help people get jobs, keep jobs, connect with employers but also how can we help people get housing possibilities that give them the stability that they need?”
Doshier said she would love to see the Norman community completely invested in a solution to fight the homeless issue in Norman.
“We know that solutions from Norman are never going to come from the federal government. They are never going to come from the state of Oklahoma,” Doshier said. “Our solution on how we care for the people who are often at the lowest priority or at the lowest attention level, it will be a solution that will come from our community.
“I would love for more community members to be involved here in direct services, more community members to be involved across the city in all different ways, in helping us develop solutions or meeting the needs of the very poor and the homeless. I would love to see our community put us on the top of their attention level.”
Even though those closest to Food and Shelter are pleased with the success of the agency, there is still one dream left unattained.
“What this organization has accomplished in the past 30 years is a testament to the community who is willing to support it. Praise be to God,” Kemp said. “But the best future for me would be for Food and Shelter to go out of business. If that happened, no one would need food or shelter, and wouldn’t that be a wonderful place to live?”