NORMAN — The City of Norman’s decision to clear out a homeless encampment this week drew criticism from some local advocates.
The northeast corner of Alameda Street and Carter Avenue was deeded at no cost to the city by William H. Matoon Revocable Trust upon the approval of the Norman City Council during the April 9 meeting.
City spokeswoman Annahylse Meyer said 20 people were living in unsanitary conditions, and two additional people were arrested on warrants unrelated to the relocation.
The camp posed a public health risk, she said. City records show the cost to clean it up will be $50,000.
“I think it’s important to note that this is not an eviction — it is a relocation from an unsanitary encampment situation to a shelter where individuals can begin or continue a housing plan for sustainable permanent housing,” she said. “We’ve been working closely with the Continuum of Care [CoC] throughout the process, and to date CoC caseworkers have identified 20 individuals in the encampment.”
Of those 20, three have been housed and six have been placed on a housing plan. The remaining 11 have refused housing opportunities numerous times over the course of several weeks, Meyer said.
“All of these individuals said they frequent Food and Shelter for breakfast/lunch, and various other agencies, yet do not have an active housing plan, or engage with a case manager,” Meyer said.
Ward 1 Councilor-elect Brandi Studley told a different story. Studley leads the Social Injustice League, a Norman group that offers temporary resources to the unhoused.
Studley said no one refused housing.
“No one, and I mean no one, refused permanent housing — they just couldn’t meet the requirements to qualify for it,” she said.
People dealing with addiction and mental illness have been denied housing, or were not in a condition to accept it, Studley said.
“The gap is, not understanding how to love and care for people while they are active in addiction and mental disability crises,” Studley said. “Until the true understanding of compassion is grasped by those in charge in the city, this will continue to be the cycle we see — cleaning camps ‘for environmental purposes’ and saying people (are) refusing housing not by saying they don’t want it, but because they are too high or mentally ill to understand what is being offered or steps they need to get it.”
Conditions like insobriety or severe mental illness are called “barriers to housing,” as shelters and agencies enforce various rules for entry.
Meyer said that what the city offered “was low or no-barrier housing,” and the city had kept documentation to the fact.
“To say that the City is not compassionate in moving these individuals out of encampments like the one at the Mattoon property is simply not true. Encampments like this are not a sanctuary,” Meyer said. “These are incredibly unsanitary and inhumane circumstances we’re talking about where individuals are living in worse than third-world conditions. Just in the past three days since clean-up began, we have removed about 70 tons of human waste, rotted food and clothing.
“This is more than just a public health issue. We believe true compassion is helping individuals get out of situations like this and into stable housing. That’s why we take a housing-first approach with low to no barriers. That means that we house people regardless of any issues such as addiction that they may be struggling with, and focus on access to help after they are in a safe, stable environment. The only requirements are identifying documents such as an ID or birth certificate, which case managers can help obtain.”
Food and Shelter Director April Heiple declined to comment on whether or not encampment residents declined housing or were offered housing, but confirmed this population faces unique challenges. Caseworkers with her organization deployed to educate the unhoused at the encampment when they learned it would be cleared Tuesday morning.
“Most of the people living at this specific encampment really need a longer and more intensive rehousing plan than what Food and Shelter has the ability to provide currently. The unfortunate reality is this is a very complicated issue and those who live there and in other encampments around our community have very complicated needs.”
Time was of the essence, and Heiple there was not enough of it to address everyone’s complicated needs.
“The type of resources necessary to house all of those women and men were not abundantly available, nor was there enough time to manage a dozen or so very difficult-to-house people,” she said in a statement. “I believe wholeheartedly all of our friends living on the street do want to be housed, but the dynamic presented to them seemed overwhelming at the time, and when they were told to go to Food and Shelter and ask for a case manager, they found all our case managers have overly full caseloads and cannot take on any new, highly complicated cases.
Meyer said resources are available and the city’s housing assistance funds are under utilized.
“The City of Norman does not control the funding for each CoC agency. The City of Norman does have a funding source to help get people into housing — it is highly underused by the CoC, yet each year we set aside a minimum of $20,000,” Meyer said. “Currently we have $37,000, limited to the use of rental assistance for up to 24 months, in which a Sec. 8 Housing voucher can be obtained, or a PSH (Permanent Supportive Housing) housing placement. TBRA (Tenant-Based Rental Assistance) includes case management to help provide secure, safe housing.”
The lot has been a well-known encampment for Norman’s unhoused residents for years, but the city plans to use it to mitigate stormwater and as a public park.
“Dr. Carrie Evenson, stormwater program manager, has identified a number of opportunities to implement strategies that positively affect stormwater runoff, all while providing recreation opportunities in a park setting,” a staff report dated April 9 reads.
Specific details were not included in the report.
“These strategies will be further discussed by council at a later date,” it reads.
The council approved $300,000 to extend the temporary warming shelter through the end of June to allow staff more time to permanently house those who were removed.