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Anti-homelessness ordinance enacted, as Shawnee grapples with lack of resources

People sit on the sidewalk across the street from Celebration of Life Park, which is surrounded by a temporary fence and "no trespassing" signs.
Britny Cordera
/
StateImpact Oklahoma
People sit on the sidewalk across the street from Celebration of Life Park, which is surrounded by a temporary fence and "no trespassing" signs.

At least 150 of Shawnee's 30,000 residents are homeless. And because of an ordinance enacted this month, life might be getting a little more difficult for some of the community’s most vulnerable residents.

The ordinance prohibits sitting or lying down on public sidewalks in downtown Shawnee. Officers can use their discretion when enforcing it and violations may result in a ticket.

City Manager Andrea Weckmueller-Behringer said her office’s decision to create the ordinance and the City Commission’s decision to pass it last December was not made lightly.

“It is a very difficult balancing act, balancing those competing needs between unhoused and housed neighbors. And in this particular case, our downtown area has been, for varying reasons, a draw point for our homeless neighbors. And it has gotten to such an extent that it affects the business community in downtown,” Weckmueller-Behringer said.

Lee Rutherford is the owner of the Lunchbox on Main Street. She said her business is directly impacted by the homeless residents who once congregated at the park near her shop, but now sit on the sidewalk across from it.

Shawnee business owner Lee Rutherford stands in her restaurant, The Lunchbox.
Britny Cordera
/
StateImpact Oklahoma
Shawnee business owner Lee Rutherford stands in her restaurant, The Lunchbox.

“I occasionally would have some customers they would approach and ask for money and stuff like that. I just would go out and tell them, you know, don’t ask my customers for money. I’ve had to call the police a time or two for some that are kind of aggressive,” Rutherford said.

While Rutherford has had negative interactions with homeless people, she also said most who come into her restaurant either offer to pay what they can for a meal or agree to take out the trash in exchange for food.

“If you don’t have any place to go, you don’t have any place to go. And I get that,” Rutherford said.

Shawnee resident Brandon Bryant said he’ll be applying for an apartment in March, but in the meantime he’s worried about getting in trouble or a ticket.

“I’m not trying to go to jail and stuff, that’s the thing. I’m not trying to go to jail. I’ll be going around there to the Salvation Army and stuff but people got to sit down somewhere. So, if you got the beds full, I’ll just get to sleeping on the floor,” Bryant said.

Shawnee resident Brandon Bryant sits outside the Shawnee Public Library.
Britny Cordera
/
StateImpact Oklahoma
Shawnee resident Brandon Bryant sits outside the Shawnee Public Library.

There are fewer than 20 beds available at Shawnee’s Salvation Army at any given time, and there is no other homeless shelter in the city. Erika Genty, Shawnee’s Homeless Program coordinator, said a lack of resources is the community’s biggest problem.

She was hired by the city to create the Homeless Resource Center in 2022, and it helps homeless people get access to food stamps and medical care. But there’s one resource that’s needed above all others.

“The greatest need, obviously, is housing. That’s the answer. But we can’t just snap our fingers and have housing happen. So, we are working on all kinds of outside-of-the-box and maybe not-so-out-of-the-box housing solutions. We just brought on some AmeriCorps VISTAs that are going to be focusing on housing and employment to be able to break down some of those barriers to housing,” Genty said.

Beyond setting up an emergency warming station at a local church to keep homeless people out of freezing temperatures, Weckmueller-Beringer said they’re working on finding a permanent shelter site.

“I wish we had a shelter, because then we can say, you can't be here, but you can be there. And we are working behind the scenes on making sure that we have such a site. But as you can imagine, it is difficult to plan for. Nobody wants anything like that in their backyard or anywhere close by, or in their neighborhood, or better yet, in their entire city, because they all tell us to go somewhere else,” Weckmueller-Behringer said. 

While connecting homeless people with resources and finding a place to put a shelter are priorities for the Homeless Program, Genty said they are also working on setting up the program to be taken over by a nonprofit.

“We're doing everything we can to set this up so that if there's a change, whether the new election brings in people that do away with the Homeless Program, or I get run over by a bus. Whatever happens,” Genty said.

Meanwhile, the no sit, no lie ordinance went into effect on Jan. 17. With city commission elections coming up in June, the little resources currently available are at stake. And Shawnee’s homeless community remains caught in the middle.

StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership of Oklahoma’s public radio stations which relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.

Hannah France started her work in public radio at KBIA while studying journalism at the University of Missouri. While there, she helped develop and produce a weekly community call-in show, for which she and her colleagues won a Gracie Award. Hannah takes interest in a wide variety of news topics, which serves her well as a reporter and producer for KGOU.
StateImpact Oklahoma reports on education, health, environment, and the intersection of government and everyday Oklahomans. It's a reporting project and collaboration of KGOU, KOSU, KWGS and KCCU, with broadcasts heard on NPR Member stations.
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