While police calls for service have increased around Food and Shelter in recent years, law enforcement and the director of the organization say the kinds of calls paint a more complex picture than simply an increase of crime in the area.
Norman police from January through October conducted 29 subject contacts, 50 welfare checks and 13 area checks, and transported 46 people to medical or mental health facilities within a quarter-mile radius of the facility.
They also responded to 95 trespassing complaints and 31 suspicious person reports in the area, according to police department records.
These reports comprised more than 43% of all responses to the area in that time frame, according to police department records.
The numbers are part of a larger pattern of reports that shows a sharp rise in police response to the area followed by a proportional decrease over the years. The area from January through October had 606 total police reports, down from more than 1,000 for the year in 2018 and 2019. It’s higher than 2016 and 2017 totals, which were fewer than 500.
Those involved say the pandemic, the location of Food and Shelter near mental health facilities, the opening of new resources and more have all affected crime numbers in different ways.
Outside of trespassing, only one other explicitly-identified arrestable offense — larceny — exceeded 20 reports, records show. and police say the number of trespassing complaints is due to Food and Shelter securing its premises.
This data comes after city council Ward 4 candidate Teresa Borum expressed frustration that homeless Normanites who don’t want to stay in the facility wander around in the neighborhood. She said the fact that many homeless residents are addicted to drugs could lead dealers to enter the neighborhood, creating more opportunity for children to use.
Only two drug violations were reported in the area from January to October, tied for the lowest number of these offenses for any of the past six years.
“What often happens is that we generalize a whole group based off the actions of one or two, and certainly, there are one or two or three people that, on the regular, we have to say, ‘You’re not welcome here,’ because their behaviors are detrimental to our community as a whole,” Food and Shelter Director April Heiple said.
Outgoing Ward 4 Lee Hall did not respond to request for comment on homelessness in her ward.
Police Capt. Stacey Clement said Food and Shelter’s decision to secure the premises speaks to its response to criminal behavior in the area. But the total number of calls rose from fewer than 500 in 2016 and 2017 to more than 1,000 in 2018 and 2019, records show.
Clement said the numbers dipped in 2020 partially because of COVID-19. She also said the opening of Norman’s emergency shelter downtown contributed to the decrease, because the space gives homeless people another place to go for services in the city.
Additionally, Clement said “it would be unfair” to expect calls for service to not increase in the immediate area around an organization that serves homeless people — they often struggle with mental illness and drug addiction, she said. Heiple added that there are mental health facilities on both sides of Food and Shelter, which leads to people from those facilities coming to hers.
“We’ve had increased calls for service around our city shelter, and to expect anything different is not reasonable. That’s absolutely going to happen when you have facilities like that and you have people that struggle with very real and serious things,” Clement said.
A ‘criminal element’
While the numbers have fallen significantly the past two years, they’re still much higher than the 156 calls for service in the area in 2016. Burglaries, shots fired, vehicle thefts and assaults are higher than most other recent years. They’ve also responded to 97 domestic/disturbance calls in the area.
The burglaries align with Borum’s concern for business owners in the area who can’t afford security.
Police on Oct. 5 also arrested Ashley Gaines on suspicion of nudity and indecent exposure. Her arresting officer accused her of removing all her clothes in the street “where children and adults could see her” after she was threatened with a trespassing citation at Food and Shelter.
Police Chief Kevin Foster at an Oct. 19 study session said a “criminal element” has moved into Norman’s homeless population.
Some homeless people at Food and Shelter say they’ve noticed the “criminal element” in this population. Duane Moschner, who came to Norman as a homeless person after spending time in jail following a confrontation with his landlord in Oklahoma City and after his sister stole $2,000 from him, said he has seen homeless people in the area steal from others.
Moschner’s claim about this particular crime aligns with the number of larceny reports in the area.
“When they’re together, they band together, and they all go stealing together,” he said.
Clement said anyone who interacts with Norman’s homeless population will attest to the “criminal element” that have moved into the city.
She also said those who steal contribute to the high number of trespassing reports at Food and Shelter, because they cause problems at the facility and are told they can’t stay.
When it comes to safety in the area, Moschner said he simply wants to get an apartment at Food and Shelter for his own security.
“I just want to be able to shut my door, lock it, go in and sleep, and know that everything that I possess – that everything that I’ve tried to possess — that I still have in the morning,” he said.
Heiple has the same goal, but on a broader scale.
“The solution to their problem is the same as the solution to my problem — we need to do something so people have the ability to sleep inside or be inside, or have a home,” she said.