TULSA (AP) — Oklahoma shelters and pantries are scrambling to meet demand as the state heads into the cruel summer months, from having enough bottled water and food stocked on their shelves to finding additional bed space for the thousands of homeless men and women seeking to come in from the sweltering heat.
For many of these organizations, which rely on private donations or grants to keep operating, the heat is an unwelcome repeat of last year’s record-busting summer temperatures in Oklahoma, when supplies began running low and panic set in as those in need kept coming at a steady clip.
In addition to the climate, the economic downturn that has gripped much of the country since 2008 has now spread across much of Oklahoma, leading to a phenomenon some frontline care providers call “the new norm,” in which people with high school, trade school or community college experience are having trouble finding work or making ends meet.
“The stereotype of the homeless person is a man in his 50s with substance abuse, but the population that’s actually increasing is families in their 20s and 30s,” said Sallie Godwin, a spokeswoman for The Salvation Army in Tulsa, which has taken in about 300 people a night in the past month. “It’s families. They might be single parents, moms and dads. It seems like they heard of work in Tulsa, they came to Tulsa with everything in their car, and the job didn’t pan out.”
At the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma, which supplies pantries and emergency shelters across 40 percent of the state, workers had hoped demand that spiked during the economic downturn of 2008 would drop off by 2010, but that didn’t happen.
“We’re still seeing people coming for the first time in a lot of cases, people considered comfortable, middle class just a few years ago, who never thought they would be in this position,” said Susan Tilkin, spokeswoman at the food bank, which is in need of high-protein, no-fuss foods like peanut butter. “We’re seeing pantries normally seeing 20 to 50 clients a week now seeing over 100. Last summer at this time, our warehouse was at a critical point.”
As workers at the Tulsa Day Center for the Homeless prepared to make room for the 400 to 450 people expected to come out of the heat every day, the challenges remained the same: convincing people who refuse to come in out of the oppressive weather they’d be better off inside.
“Folks addicted to alcohol or drugs stay out in it,” said Mack Haltom, associate director at the center, which put out a call this week for bottled water, clothing and extra blankets. “I think we forget that this is life and death stuff.
“It comes to me every time we, God forbid, we find someone out there who has died because of the weather. It is a life and death situation,” he said.
At City Rescue Mission in Oklahoma City, which was prepared to accommodate 550 people who come in out of the heat every day, water and other critical supplies were in demand, said Tom Jones, the president and CEO of the mission.
“We literally provided 40 pallets of water to other agencies,” Jones said. “That’s the No. 1, immediate issue we’re facing with homelessness statewide, the seriousness of the dehydration.
“It doesn’t take too many hours out in this heat to sweat out all the liquids in your body,” he said.