Oklahoma City’s Homelessness Crisis

Peyton Benge
10 min readFeb 5, 2021


And the powerful people who could care less.

A tent and scattered belongings in an alley near the Homeless Alliance in Oklahoma City.
A tent and scattered items in an alley near The Homeless Alliance in Oklahoma City.

“I urge every one of you to go out there and take a drive after you leave here.”

- Clinton Betchan, local Oklahoma City business owner

In the early morning, at the corner of Blackwelder and Sheridan, and all around the Western Avenue bridge, “there” is where you’ll find this story.

Before I begin, I find it proper to first state I am quite firmly aware that the homelessness crisis in OKC is not new. There is extensive coverage of its continued presence and many folks in this city are far more dedicated to ending it than I’ve ever attempted to be.

As a young, white male privileged enough to live a comfortable life with never actively encountering extreme poverty in my segregated suburb, I’ve never really been properly introduced to poverty’s prevalence in my home state.

But after a couple of years in Oklahoma City, poverty and homelessness have both become terribly unavoidable truths.

A make-shift home for a homeless resident in Oklahoma City.

Around 8:30 am on January 5th, I was driving along the interstate to an Oklahoma City Council meeting to make citizens’ remarks and to promote a previous article written in response to the police execution of a resident an OKC named Bennie Edwards.

That morning, I decided to get off I-40 by taking the exit on Western Avenue instead of Shields. As I made my route to City Hall, to speak on behalf of a homeless Black man shot and killed by the police, I was astonished by the sight of so many twinkling, huddled masses seen lying alongside the newly-constructed bridge and roadway intersection.

Hiding any indication of the human identity swaddled beneath their garments, dozens of people could clearly be seen covering themselves in as many layers as they could conjure.

Jackets, sleeping bags, and blankets were the only fabrics of humanity visible.

Many of the people I saw that day were sleeping head-to-toe alongside the outer wall of the Western Avenue bridge as if to form their own wall, or more properly, their own chain-link.

Because these people are shackled into this cruel poverty, and it’s rarely by their own poor decisions, and more so often because of decisions our municipal and federal governments choose to make.

The faceless people I saw on that early winter morning were shimmering, not metaphorically, but quite literally from dawn’s glare reflecting off a thin layer of frost which had crept across their fetal-positioned bodies overnight.

The sparkle from their frozen forms was so bright in my rearview mirror, my wincing eyes reminded me of how one squints one’s own eyes when peering into a jewelry case at a department store.

So many dazzling items were on full display that morning.

But much like when I’m caught in front of a salesperson in a department store, it would appear many folks in our local community are not interested in the gems presented before them.

As I sat for five hours at the City Council meeting, I heard local business owners state their complaints. To them, these unpolished resources lying across roads and intersections aren’t worth the processing, development, and necessary care to procure other natural resources.

To the business owners who showed up that day, these resources are not even worth giving overnight storage or shelter.

But why is it we treat our fellow neighbors worse than rocks? Are they not merely diamonds in rough shape? Well, one need look no further than how we treat our natural resources to comprehend how we can be so cruel to one another.

However, I think it proper to illustrate this cruelty we inflict on our poorest residents in Oklahoma City, and I hope to do so in a way that possesses the listener and encourages them to reclaim the priorities of Oklahoma City and realign our moral compass charting forward.

By the Highway. By the Numbers.

Before we address the gross remarks of some powerful, local business owners, I want to get to some raw data, because some of the numbers listed at this meeting by community leaders and members of the Oklahoma City Council were astonishing.

As I stepped out of the Council’s meeting to pay for two more hours of parking, a very important community leader stepped in: Jerod Shadid.

Shadid is the City Homeless Services Program Planner and he was attending this City Council meeting to speak on meeting item IX. B. The item reads:

“Ordinance on final hearing (emergency) recommend for approval (five affirmative votes required for approval) (SP­549) Special Permit to allow Use Unit (8250.7) Emergency Shelters and Feeding Sites in the SPUD­613 Simplified Planned Unit Development District, 1400 NW 3rd Street. Ward 6.”

In other words, Shadid, who works directly with communities experiencing homelessness, was at the City Council meeting to defend the approval of an emergency homeless shelter in OKC.

According to Shadid, the numbers are bleak. Available shelter overflow beds for the winter have been wiped out by COVID protocols. “Bed capacity has been affected by over 40%.”

Dan Straughan, the Director of the Homeless Alliance furthered Shadid’s dim projections. In January of 2020, the Homeless Alliance reported a count of 1,573 people experiencing homelessness in Oklahoma City.

However, that count was executed just before the real effects of the pandemic were being felt on the local economy, but now the impact of the virus is everpresent in OKC, and the outcomes are quite visible across downtown.

Protocols put in place by the city to prevent the spread of the coronavirus are welcome, but they are also inadvertently causing stress on the city’s ability to provide winter shelter to its homeless residents.

There are currently seven shelters in Oklahoma City and normally there would be around 900 beds to provide an overnight stay. However, if you’re like me and Councilman James Cooper, then a math light just flicked on in your head causing you to wonder:

“Wait. Isn’t that already 653 beds less than what’s necessary to give shelter to the current homeless population in OKC?”

Yes, but it’s even grimmer.

COVID protocols have reduced the typical overnight shelter numbers to just 600 beds.

Do some more quick math and that’s almost 1,000 Oklahoma City residents left without overnight shelter this winter. Add in the eventual passage of the above-disputed emergency shelter and that deficit is still 823 people.

But these numbers aren’t exactly dependable.

Gregory Shinn, MSW Associate Director & Chief Housing Officer for the Mental Health Association Oklahoma emphasized at the City Council meeting that the population of residents experiencing homelessness in Oklahoma City has increased since the beginning of the pandemic, but due to COVID protocols, the City will not be able to perform its annual homeless census to monitor the increase.

In a best-case scenario, Oklahoma City will be able to perform a census next year in 2022 to assess the damages. Which, could be catastrophic considering the remarks of Councilman Cooper.

According to the Ward 2 leader, 135,000 people are living at or below the poverty line in Oklahoma City.

And in Cooper’s ward alone, the average citizen is making 20% less than what is necessary to live “comfortably” in OKC. It begs one to wonder what these numbers might look like a year from now? Especially, with current trends for the international oil and gas industry.

If all of this data has your eyes twitching like Zach Galifinakis in a casino, don’t fret! Some local Oklahoma City business owners (I’ll let you guess their race and gender) made it clear to the Council that the true victims in this current economic arena are them and their discomfited employees.

An abandoned residence near the new Emergency Overnight Shelter.

“I can’t take walks at noon.”

This was a primary concern of Oklahoma City business owner Dick Greenly. (Can’t make that first name up.)He is the Board Chair of Water4 and the owner of Pumps of Oklahoma.

Water4 is a public charity that is “dedicated to training, equipping and supporting the developing world to drill water wells as a business.” Or so it says on Greenly’s LinkedIn. Based on my very thin research, Water4 looks like if the ugly colloquial phrase “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” became a nonprofit organization, but I could be terribly mistaken.

Anyway, Board Chair Dick is really passionate about empowering impoverished communities an Atlantic Ocean away, but when it’s in his own backyard, he has safety concerns.

Greenly says his employees don’t feel safe walking around in the area around his office and he thinks the emergency shelter will make matters worse for him and his business.

Brad Richardson also shares his concerns.

The previous Vice President of Operations at Paycom and current owner of Richardson Investments is not too happy about approximately 150 people possibly having a safe, warm place to sleep at night in the middle of winter.

Mainly, because that place is near his entrepreneurial stomping grounds.

Richardson and “other investors” are excited about the “prospects” of economic growth in the Western side of Downtown OKC, but he fears the new emergency shelter will “stifle development.”

He didn’t say anything as brazenly egregious as the other business folks, but he did leave us with this gem from the end of his business pitch:

“We’re excited about what it can be, but we’re concerned about what it could be, also.”


Finally, there was Clinton Betchan, a man with absolutely no mental radar for situational irony. You might remember the business owner’s quote from the beginning of this article:

“I urge every one of you to go out there and take a drive after you leave here.”

However, the disclaimer that wasn’t attached to Betchan’s bitchin’ (I hate that term, but the alliterative opportunity was too grand for this writer to deny) was exactly what type of business he owns.

Clinton Betchan is the proud owner of Betchan Home Inspections. I’ll give you a moment to wipe up the spilled liquid that I could only presume uncontrollably spewed from your lips.

Yes, a man, who owns both a house and a business built on houses, was taking time out of his day to complain about the overnight winter shelter of house-less people. “And why should he care about whether a hundred more people receive shelter? They don’t have homes for him to inspect,” probably wondered nonprofit Chair Dick Greenly.

Moments like this are why I don’t pretend to be a journalist. Because folks like Betchan make it impossible for me to hide my bias and be “nonpartisan.” If Hell isn’t a concept and truly exists after this life, then I am 1000% sure there is a special corner for folks like Clinton Betchan.

(But don’t worry Betch, that corner in Hell won’t have any homeless people around to ruin it for you.)

Fortunately, there are some business owners in Oklahoma City with a different opinion on these matters. Courtney Hurst, co-owner of Fertile Ground Cooperative, expressed her own sentiments at the City Council meeting:

“I do go walk around at lunchtime and I do come across a lot of people. I talk to them. I have personally never felt unsafe, but that could just be my perception.”

Hurst has taken time to help clean up the community and explained how this issue isn’t new and that:

“Whether there is a shelter or not, there are people experiencing homelessness all over the neighborhood…Just because they don’t have homes in our neighborhood, doesn’t mean they are not our neighbors.”

Well put, Courtney.

Willard School is the facility being used for the Emergency Overnight Shelter.

You’ve Seen Lightning. Now Thunder.

All of these disgruntled White male business owners’ remarks at the January 5th City Council meeting were striking, but not surprising. However, just two days later, the Oklahoma City Thunder would enter the story and make a booming announcement.

According to The Oklahoman, the NBA organization declared it would like to go first in the MAPS 4 projects. If you’re not familiar with MAPS 4, I wasn’t a fan of the proposal because of how inadequately it addresses the housing crisis in OKC while giving more than enough financing for three separate stadium projects across the city.

Simply two days before the Thunder’s presentation at the MAPS 4 Citizens Advisory Board, Councilperson Jo Beth Hamon explained how Oklahoma City is in need of 4,500 affordable housing units today. But MAPS 4 will only build roughly one thousand units over the next decade.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the deficit in affordable housing compounded with OKC’s aforementioned growing poverty is going to lead to terrible wreckage along the city’s future course.

Sadly this fact from my previous article still reigns true.

“In a city that saw an 8% rise in people experiencing homelessness in 2019, MAPS 4 is set to designate more than 4 times the funds set aside for combatting homelessness on stadium and arena improvement projects.”

But these facts and data points aren’t causing the Thunder to shy away from their hard-lobbied money.

“A plan presented Thursday to the MAPS 4 Citizens Advisory Board on behalf of The Oklahoma City Thunder proposes beginning arena work this summer.” Essentially, The Thunder have been working on their summer bod all-2020-long and they are ready to move faster than Lu Dort on a breakaway.

Even if that means putting off building affordable housing in a city that already gave the NBA organization the stadium it plays in now.

But knowing the priorities of the leadership inside and around our City’s government, the Thunder will probably get their way and start work renovations this Summer.

But by then, the diamonds outside the stadium will have lost their glow.