Monday mornings are energetic at Food & Shelter in Norman, a community center and housing development serving the homeless population in town. The building is loud as bursts of conversation spill into the front hallway from the cafeteria where several dozen residents and guests wait for lunch to be served at 11 a.m.
A few others sit in a warmly-lit waiting room with comfortable chairs, hoping to talk to volunteers and staff about getting help to meet their needs, which range from housing to mental health services to diapers for their kids. Since the office is closed on the weekend, the wait is longer than usual on Mondays. But no one seems to mind, and the staff is friendly and eager to help.
One office worker is Amber Williams. Williams started volunteering at Food & Shelter a few months ago and moved up to a work-experience position a little while afterward. Before she started in the office, though, she was on the other side of the counter.
Williams has dealt with homelessness off and on for most of her life. Now she lives in one of many tiny houses in a recently built small neighborhood on Food & Shelter’s property northeast of downtown.
“I don’t want to be homeless again,” Williams said. “Statistically, (because I have been before), I’m very close to being homeless again, so that’s what we’re working toward: Keeping me from falling back into that. When I was asked to come work here, that’s when things really changed for me. I’ve thrived.”
The person who asked Williams to come work was April Heiple, who has been the executive director of Food & Shelter for just over nine years. Heiple is quick to smile and speaks warmly when talking about the staff, residents and guests she oversees.
In 2014, Heiple started planning and fundraising for a new location Food & Shelter could call home since its previous facility was old and cramped. The new campus opened in 2017 on Reed Avenue, off of East Main Street and 12th Street, and is about six times as large as the old building.
During the initial brainstorming for the new facility, the shelter’s construction partners planned on creating one large building that would provide housing for several individuals and families. But Heiple had a different idea. She put herself in the mindset of a person in need of housing and realized she would want to live somewhere that felt more like a home.
So, instead of one large shelter, the new campus has 32 small cottages that provide a place to live for members of the homeless community in Norman as they work toward finding long-term housing of their own.
Half of the houses are studio-style residences with one room and a bathroom, and the other half, designed for families, have two bedrooms so that parents and children can each have their own. The houses come furnished, but residents can take the furniture with them when they transition out, helping ease the financial burden of moving.
The tiny houses are allotted based on need, not on any kind of merit or payment. This is unusual, since many shelters require residents to pass drug tests or join therapy programs. Heiple said one of her highest priorities is making sure those who need shelter get it.
“You don’t have to be sober, you don’t have to be crime-free, but you do have to agree coming in that those are your ultimate goals: Things like sobriety, stable housing, staying out of jail,” Heiple said. “We’re thinking about that basic hierarchy of needs. First, people need to feel safe. Then we can think about getting them a job or tackling mental health issues. Their rent to us is setting goals and taking steps toward achieving those goals.”
Most of the staff at Food & Shelter are caseworkers who spend a significant portion of their time checking up on residents and their goals. Williams, who deals with anxiety, says regular check-ins with her supervisor are helpful in managing her mental health because she knows someone else is looking out for her.
The housing-first policy allows people who struggle with addiction or mental health issues and would otherwise sleep outside into a safe environment. One example is a man named Dennis, who was homeless in Norman for 18 years. During the six months before Food & Shelter gave him a space, he was arrested 20 times for trespassing, public intoxication and other nonviolent offenses.
“When we first said we were going to house him, the police said we were crazy, mental health (workers) said we were crazy — but we just took that chance,” Heiple said. “Somebody had to do something. Once he arrived, he said ‘Now that I’ve been housed, I never want to be homeless again.’”
Dennis started a salvaging business, and within a year, he could live on his own and pay his own rent.
“That was eight years ago, and he hasn’t been in jail once since then,” Heiple said.
“He still drinks, he still has issues every now and then, he still accesses mental health facilities, which is important, but every time he needs something he calls me or one of my coworkers and says ‘I’m struggling. Can you help me get through this?’ And we help him get through it.”
Unfortunately, Food & Shelter still can’t provide housing to everyone who needs it in Norman. According to its own estimates, between 220 and 250 men, women and children sleep outside every night for lack of somewhere else to stay.
Even that number doesn’t tell the whole story, though: Over 3,000 people in Cleveland County qualify as homeless, according to standards set by the Oklahoma Department of Housing Services. That estimate takes into account those sleeping outside and in shelters, as well as those living in motels or sleeping on friends’ couches instead of at a residence they can call their own.
One of Heiple’s goals is to build more cottages so additional housing is available to those without a permanent place to stay. In the meantime, the shelter serves three meals a day to anyone who needs them, homeless or not. It also provides regular classes, clinics and mental health and addiction recovery meetings.
Because Food & Shelter’s full-time staff mostly consists of caseworkers, the food and classes are largely provided by volunteers. On the organization’s website, individuals can sign up almost a year in advance for volunteer opportunities. Large groups from clubs to churches can coordinate with the shelter directly to find a timeslot to come in as a group.
Carlos Frazier, a man with a short beard and a rich, gravelly voice, is one of the guests who comes for volunteer-provided meals but doesn’t have a place to stay.
“People need to know there’s not enough shelter,” Frazier said. “We get a lot of harassment from different people. Being homeless, you know, there’s a lot of stress on you. This kind of relieves some of that — at least for me it does. The food’s pretty good, and it’s a good atmosphere, too. If more people were willing to help, like this young lady here,” he gestured to Heiple, “things would be much better.”
Even though Frazier is just one of the 250 people who gets a meal at Food & Shelter every day, he and Heiple talk to and about each other like friends. That personal connection, Heiple says, is one of the shelter’s greatest strengths.
“We’re about relationships, we’re about investing in people and taking people that have lived without stability their whole existence and creating stable families,” she said. “That happens through real, in-depth investment. In the time people are with us, they achieve this life growth that probably wouldn’t have been possible if we hadn’t had them here.”
Williams agreed, emphasizing the importance of seeing people who are homeless as diverse individuals instead of a faceless group. It’s been one of her priorities as she works in the office.
“I always thought of the street homeless people kind of as one, but now I know each of their names,” she said. “Because I get it. I can relate to all of them, I’ve been there. I don’t want to look people up, I don’t want to know what they did, because then I might pass judgment. I’m just trying to help people.”