TULSA, Okla. — As COVID-19 spread across the country, the number of homeless exploded, especially families, and especially in the Tulsa area.
But even before the pandemic, homelessness was grabbing a hold of more people.
The reason? The Executive Director of Housing Solutions, Becky Gligo, points to the Tulsa area's high eviction rate and alarming lack of affordable housing. She said Tulsa has the 11th highest eviction rate in the country.
Now, there is a coordinated effort in the Tulsa area including 32 agencies attacking homelessness, called "A Way Home For Tulsa."
The Director of Outreach for Housing Solutions, Tyler Parette, said, "Homelessness is not an issue that's going to be solved by a couple of superheroes. Homelessness is going to take every person in our community stepping up and partnering with agencies at the table, to really serve the most vulnerable in our society."
Increased funding from the federal government because of the pandemic helped make a big difference. But agencies depend on private money, too. To show how these agencies are making a big difference, 2 News Oklahoma talked to a family that has been homeless for a year. 2 News found them on the north edge of downtown Tulsa, next to the jail and the Day Center for the Homeless, at the Salvation Army's Center of Hope.
Upstairs in one of the homeless family units, Terry Zinn, 7. He's watching one of his favorite movies, again. For the past year, Terry and his mom and dad called this place home, as they struggle to find a place of their own. It's certainly not surprising a little boy would be shy, fidgety, and a little confused. Terry told 2 News, "It's really bad, but it's really good, too."
His mom, Jessica Zinn, while fighting back tears, said it hurts to watch her son day in and day out, experiencing what no child ever should. "It's hard because he's older, and there are a lot of things he shouldn't see."
Yet Jessica and her husband, Bill, are so very grateful to be here in their desperate time of need. They were in the shelter's general population for a couple of months, until one of the few family units opened up. And Terry, Jessica and Bill have been staying here ever since.
Bill said, "I never really thought I would ask for help and never really wanted it, but you find yourself, everybody has tough times. You find yourself down and out, and a little bit of help goes a long, long way."
Bill works construction, as much as his health allows, but said it's been painfully slow during the pandemic. And severe back pain kept Jessica from working as a nursing assistant for years.
After being denied for disability, Sooner Care recently paid for the surgery, but Jessica may need another, and then therapy. "It was either pay to get an MRI or make sure you have food in the house, I chose to take care of my family."
Through it all though, Jessica said Terry keeps smiling, yet she knows he's hiding the hurt, no friends, and no place to play, no home of his own.
2 News noticed Terry smiling, even as his mom talked about being homeless. When asked why he's smiling so much, while hugging and kissing his mom, he whispered, "Because I got my mother and my dad."
That's when he told his mom and dad, that he loved them. And it's those words and kisses, that give them hope.
As she wiped away more tears, Jessica said, "If you see things through the eyes of a child, it's not so bad."
And on this day, hope would win. After nearly 365 days of homelessness, it's a homecoming of sorts. Terry and his mom and his dad are moving out of the shelter for homeless families, into their own apartment several miles away near 71st and Lewis. All thanks to Family Promise of Tulsa County, one of Tulsa's many agencies dedicated to helping the homeless.
"A family is going from not knowing where they are sleeping tonight or if they're going to be able to protect their child, to having a home of their own," said Tina Massey, the Director of Family Promise of Tulsa County.
With the help of federal dollars and much-needed donations from charities and churches, it provides an apartment for homeless families as they get back on their feet, for anywhere from 30 to 90 days.
Family Promise provides essentials such as rent, food and transportation. That way, families can save, are required to save 85% of the income from jobs they find, for their permanent future home.
Massey said, "Families just need a hand up and that's what we're here for, we're here to hold their hand."
The agency makes sure families have all the paperwork and documents they need to succeed, from birth certificates to IDs. And with rapid rehousing help from the Tulsa Day Center, the program pays for housing and utility deposits and any past due utility bills that could keep families from getting service again. Anything needed, to help turn a family's sweat and tears, into smiles, Massey said, "They are just totally different people, it's like watching this amazing transformation from a caterpillar to a butterfly."
Especially the children. It didn't take Terry long to meet new friends at his new home.
Grinning ear to ear, Terry told 2 news "It's great and it's cool here because we have new friends and there's a friend with a huge water gun!"
It's great too, Terry said, to have his own bedroom again and to eat in his own kitchen. For Terry's mom and dad, it's all about their little boy, they say, who hopefully hasn't grown up too soon.
"You know, there's one thing you remember growing up, is that childhood, your friends, and the great things that you did, and that's a great time in your life, and we want him to have that," Jessica said.
So from the bottom of their hearts, Jessica and Bill and Terry said thanks, "It's amazing these people would do this, would help."
WATCH the Zinn's full story on 2 News Oklahoma Today at 6:30 a.m.
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