Researchers at the University of Oklahoma, including Dr. Bryce Lowery of the Regional and City Planning Division, are working with the Oklahoma Housing Finance Agency to assess services available across the state that help Oklahomans experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity.
OHFA has received one-time funding of approximately $32 million through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development HOME-ARP program. OHFA’s contract with the OU team will provide research on where the funds could have the greatest impact across the state.
According to data reported to the U.S. Department of Education for the 2018-19 school year, an estimated 23,372 Oklahoma public school students experienced homelessness over the course of the year. Some experts believe the COVID-19 pandemic has caused this total to climb even higher.
The HOME-ARP program stipulates that funding from the award is used to directly support populations currently experiencing or at the greatest risk of homelessness, and that the resources be allocated based on data-driven findings for where the investment can make the greatest impacts. By working with OU, OHFA can ensure compliance with the funding requirements to distribute the funding to service and resource providers across the state.
“I commend HUD for being very specific that the right kind of people get the right kind of help,” said Darrell Beavers, the housing development programs director for the Oklahoma Housing Finance Agency. “We have to come up with an allocation plan that we will submit to HUD for their approval, and that plan has to cover a number of topics, like a consultation with stakeholders – people who are working with the homeless population, which is not something our agency regularly does.”
To help with this assessment, Beavers contacted Bryce Lowery, Ph.D., a Regional and City Planning Associate Professor in the Christopher C. Gibbs College of Architecture, who had previously worked with OHFA on a statewide housing needs research project in 2015.
Lowery is working with faculty in the Anne and Henry Zarrow School of Social Work, David McLeod, Ph.D., and Christina Miller, Ph.D., who have expertise in the intersections of social work with criminal justice and education, respectively.
“By using data-informed recommendations to better guide the allocation of resources related to homelessness and housing instability, we have an opportunity to improve multiple outcomes across the state – whether those are criminal justice outcomes, educational outcomes, health outcomes, food and security – you name it. There’s just a lot of opportunity,” McLeod said. “We know from existing research if someone doesn’t have a place to lay their head at night that their likelihood of being connected to all those other adverse experiences exponentially increases.”
Together with assistance from nine graduate student researchers, the team is working with the Governor’s Interagency Council on Homelessness, a state advisory board working to end homelessness in Oklahoma, to “make sure we’re capturing as many experiences and perspectives as possible,” Lowery said.
Emily Roberts, a master’s student in the School of Social Work and a member of the research team, said the goal is to enhance the services currently available by finding what’s working well in and beyond Oklahoma City and Tulsa “to ensure the entire state has access to these resources.”
McLeod said they are distributing an online survey, hosting regional meetings across the state, speaking with representatives of service provision areas like housing providers, food banks and transportation service providers and collecting data from people experiencing housing instability and homelessness. They are also using existing tools like Be a Neighbor, an online platform connecting Oklahoma nonprofits and community and faith-based organizations, to integrate with their independently collected research.
“After we’ve collected our data, we’re taking those findings back to the community, basically a ‘qualitative member check,’ to make sure we are communicating this in a way that they believe represents their voices,” Lowery said. “We’re also hoping to create an interactive map that would allow visitors to our website to see where resources are.”
McLeod adds that the potential outcomes of improving access to resources for those experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity in the state extend beyond individual benefit.
“We all know people who are one paycheck away from housing insecurity – where some accident would cause economic turmoil, and it’s shocking the number of kids under 18 who don’t have a reliable place to sleep,” he added. “How can we help them? What’s the strategy for us to open our hearts to these folks?”
Lowery added that there can be a stigma around homelessness. “It’s not that most people going through this don’t want to pick themselves up, they just need to see a pathway to get there. Sometimes it’s a longer reach to get to the bootstrap. If they can see the light at the end of the tunnel, then they can move toward it.”
The research team will be conducting in-person and virtual meetings through August with the final reports delivered to the OHFA by the end of the year.
Article reprinted from the Univ. of Oklahoma Office of the Vice President for Research and Partnerships