In Oklahoma, Hero City Official Rescues Property Values (For Himself), Lets Homeless Freeze
Just in case you had any questions about how well the American Dream is working out, go ahead and have a look at ThinkProgress'slongform investigation of homelessness in one smallish city, Shawnee, Oklahoma*, known to the particularly avid Wonker as the county seat of Pottawatomie County. It is not a happy report. The piece starts with a discussion of the death of Gary Lynn Roy, a homeless construction worker with a drinking problem and -- after he fell off a roof and broke both legs in 2012 -- an employability problem. Unable to find shelter on a freezing night, Gary Roy froze to death next to some railroad tracks on February 20 last year. (Roy was not the homeless fellow who was beaten to death by an unknown gang in the middle of the night in 2011. That was somebody else.)
Less than a mile away from where Roy died, there was supposed to be a new shelter for the homeless in Shawnee, except for one small problem: City Commissioner James Harrod, who also serves as the city's vice mayor, owns several rental properties in the area near the proposed shelter. Thank goodness for free enterprise -- even though there was substantial community support for the new shelter, several members of Mr. Harrod's family wrote to oppose a zoning change for the shelter, arguing it would reduce property values. And really, compared to the well-being of a job creator who's worth a few million dollars, what's the life of one homeless alcoholic bum who wouldn't even sober up, hobble off on his walker, and get a job?
We won't try to recount every horror in the article -- there are plenty -- but what it mostly comes down to is that thanks to opposition from Harrod's family, the shelter project was killed. There's already a rescue mission operating on the site, which distributes food and blankets, but has no beds, and in January 2011, the organizers received a $450,000 grant to expand services to include beds for 23 men, 11 women, and three families. This would double the number of beds available in Shawnee; currently, the only shelter is one operated by the Salvation Army, which is frequently filled past capacity in cold weather. And so pretty much everyone in the providing-services-for-the-homeless community (which is not to say everyone in town) was in favor of the new Shawnee Rescue Mission shelter.
Happily for Mr. Harrod, the Community Development Director's report on the Rescue Mission's expansion proposal called for further study, which gave opponents more time to find ways to kill the shelter. And by golly, there were two compelling and logically inconsistent reasons the opponents came up with: First off, they said that there just wasn't enough demand for a new shelter -- Shawnee's needs, they said, were being met by the Salvation Army, never mind the letter to the planning commission from a Salvation Army volunteer who said that there was "simply is too much need for one organization to cover" it all. And also, they argued that if a second shelter opened, all the homeless (who didn't exist in sufficient numbers to need it) would flock to the location and ruin property values.
Mr. Harrod is in the "not needed" camp, and told ThinkProgress that he was pretty sure that the reason Gary Roy died wasn't that he couldn't find shelter, but that he didn't want to go to the Salvation Army shelter because he didn't want to follow their rules. Mr. Harrod's wife -- with no input from him, he insists -- is in the property values camp, and wrote to the Planning Commission to complain that the existing Rescue Mission, even without any beds, had already caused property values to "plummet" and warned that if the shelter were to open, “We would be promoting all homeless to come to Shawnee and receive free room and board.” And of course, ThinkProgress did a little digging online and in the County Tax Assessor's office and found that property values in the area had actually held steady or increased since 2009. Even so, the Planning Commission received five letters from members of the Harrod family, all warning of dire effects on the city. The Commission voted to reject the zoning change, and the Rescue Mission had to return that $450,000 grant.
Just to make sure there weren't any more problems, Harrod also convinced the Commission to adopt a moratorium on opening any more homeless shelters in Shawnee, because they're really just nothing but trouble. In hopes that the homeless will just go away or get a job if things are made miserable enough for them, the city has removed park benches, closed a park gazebo, and just for the hell of it, no longer writes permits for charities to feed the homeless in parks.
Also, to help move the process along, vigilante groups have taken to breaking up homeless camps, stealing their possessions and throwing them into a wood chipper, to "clean up" the community. The mayor has praised one such group, Shawnee Proud, for "truly making a difference."
In the meantime, other Oklahomans are worried that Barack Obama is going to make America a terrible place to live.
*The editrix linked to her master's thesis on Shawnee, and to her mom's Democratic Club in Shawnee, because she is a terrible journalist, but a pretty good master's thesis writer, if you define that as "good enough to get a master's."
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