When Lisa P. lost her motel job in October 2023, she and her partner, John P., also lost their home. A room at the inn was included with Lisa’s employment. With nowhere to go and no safety net of family or friends to fall back on, the couple, both in their early 40s, took to the streets of Oklahoma City, homeless and sleeping in a tent.

On June 13, the two took shelter from the sun under W Oklahoma City Blvd.

They usually camp on state property, like in the shade of overpasses, and officers don’t usually bother them, they said. They are quiet and keep to themselves, along with their 8-month-old pit bull, Faith, who kept a keen eye on the raucous group of younger people occupying the other side of the underpass, across the street.

Soon, Senate Bill 1854 will require officers to take action with people such as Lisa and John.

Effective Nov. 1, Oklahoma will join several other states including Kentucky, Florida, Missouri, Georgia and Texas, in enacting a statewide anti-camping law that will limit where the estimated 3,800 Oklahomans experiencing homelessness are allowed to sleep when unsheltered.

Those bans were adapted from model legislation provided by The Cicero Institute, an Austin, Texas-based think tank that works to persuade legislators nationwide to strengthen unauthorized camping laws and require government-sanctioned homeless encampments.

Oklahoma’s new law is a watered-down version of stricter anti-camping bans like those approved this year in Kentucky and Florida that fall almost perfectly in line with the Institute’s Reducing Street Homelessness Act.

Statewide, many social service groups oppose the new law and the Cicero model bill behind it, calling them inhumane and a further hindrance to fixing the real problems behind homelessness.

Driving people into hiding rather than providing them with life-or-death assistance is an injustice of human rights, they contend. Service providers want the state to direct action and attention to supporting their city-wide efforts rather than passing legislation that adds to the plight of Oklahoma’s homeless.

“One of our main concerns, outside of the dehumanizing impact that some of these bills have, is they're punitive, and they're criminalizing people who are already incredibly vulnerable,” said Meghan Mueller, CEO of The Homeless Alliance in Oklahoma City.

Oklahoma’s law criminalizes camping on unauthorized state land or rights-of-way such as under bridges or alongside public roads and highways.

Offenders can be fined up to $50, charged with a misdemeanor and sentenced up to 15 days in jail if they refuse to relocate themselves and their belongings to authorized areas or accept a ride from law enforcement officers to a nearby shelter or service provider.

“There are not nearly enough shelters in the state, nor is there enough program funding to assist the thousands of Oklahomans who do not have a safe place to call home,” Mark Davis, the chief programs officer of Mental Health Association Oklahoma told Epic Text Books via email.

“We have a dire lack of affordable housing in this state already, and criminal charges often disqualify individuals from options that are available,” he said.

Not all legislators agree with the new camping ban. Sen. Julia Kirt, D-Oklahoma City, voted against it, speaking out in the bill’s debate on the Oklahoma State Senate floor.

“The law could derail the real progress we are making to build trust and connect people with the resources they need to rebuild a thriving life,” Kirt told Epic Text Books.

“We have a dire lack of affordable housing in this state already, and criminal charges often disqualify individuals from options that are available.”

Mark Davis, Mental health Association Oklahoma

Avoiding Worse Outcomes

“We’re not trying to ensnare people in the criminal justice system,” said Devon Kurtz, the public safety policy director at The Cicero Institute. “The intention is not to have this be enforced in such a way that all of these individuals are going before judges and getting fines.”

Kurtz said encouraging police interaction with people before they create encampments of multiple tents could curtail worse legal outcomes.

He gave a hypothetical example of a spot in a park where a couple of unhoused people set up camp. Then a few more join, and two weeks later another six people join. Suddenly, the area has become a small compound and law enforcement is bound to get involved, Kurtz said.

“Someone brings some sort of propane tank and open burner, (which could explode) and someone else is doing drugs, and it just gets unwieldy,” Kurtz said. “Police are able to charge them with felonies, trespassing or public endangerment; they're going to find parts of the criminal code that will apply to resolve the situation.”

Kurtz said cities avoid situations like this by charging the minimum misdemeanor possible rather than finding other types of criminal charges.

Concerns About State’s Trajectory

The new state law collides with the Housing First model, which is the framework for Tulsa and Oklahoma City coalitions fighting homelessness at the grassroots level.

The Cicero Institute asserts that Housing First is a broken model. Kurtz called Housing First a failed experiment.

The National Low Income Housing Association stated that the Cicero punitive measures are ineffective, outdated, and dangerous.

The Cicero push against Housing First and toward government-sanctioned homeless encampments sparks deep concerns in Oklahomans working at local levels to reduce homelessness in a humane and permanent way.

They would rather see more money invested in shelters and housing initiatives. They are concerned with sanctioned encampments pushing people out of sight into areas with large numbers of residents and few rules and resources.

With shelters full, more than 500 people sleep unsheltered nightly in Tulsa. Oklahoma City is short about 433 shelter beds.

“So if you expect them all to have to stay in a sanctioned encampment, it's either going to have to be a very large encampment or multiple smaller encampments,” Josh Sanders, the director of outreach at Tulsa Day Center, said.

He said the outcomes for people living unsheltered are better when they stay in small camps where they have more control over who they live with.

“When you force 100 people to live together, chances are you're going to have a significant number of those people who don't get along, and you'd have issues that arise out of those people,” Sanders said.

“All they're going to do is take you to a homeless shelter that has no beds, or they're going to take you to a food bank. It’s pointless.”

John P., Homeless

Law Could Disrupt Housing Effort

Key to Home in Oklahoma City and Pathway to Home in Tulsa are moving camp by camp, housing the residents and cleaning up the old encampments.

In both cities, the Continuums of Care have tacit agreements with law enforcement not to break up encampments where nonprofit coalitions are working to rehouse the residents.

Camping bans and sanctioned camps are steps toward destabilizing the progress that active, on-the-ground nonprofits are working toward, Sanders said.

SCOTUS Could Rule

The U.S. Supreme Court could soon decide that Cicero-inspired anti-camping legislation like Oklahoma’s equates to cruel and unusual punishment as defined under the Eighth Amendment.

The court heard a case out of Grant’s Pass, Oregon. At issue is whether enforcing camping bans on public property is constitutional when a jurisdiction has too few shelter beds available for its homeless population, as is the case in Oklahoma.

The Cicero Institute is one of dozens of groups that filed amicus curiae, or friend of the court briefs, in the case. The brief claims camping bans are a compassionate way to redirect unsheltered homeless individuals to existing shelters.

The Grant’s Pass decision will guide how aggressively states and localities can police their homeless while protecting the Constitutional rights of people living on the streets across America.

“Police are able to charge them with felonies, trespassing or public endangerment; they're going to find parts of the criminal code that will apply to resolve the situation.”

Devon Kurtz, The Cicero Institute

Oklahoma’s Homeless Waiting for Help

If camping bans are enforced in Oklahoma, Lisa and John said they’ll do what they see many other Oklahomans living on the streets do; they’ll head to wooded areas of the cities and try to stay out of view.

They don’t agree with the law and said they’d take a $50 fine. Police know they can’t pay that.

“But I ain’t going to jail,” Lisa said.

The couple said they might support the idea of a government-sanctioned encampment if the shelters have locks or security.

They said that having a safe, legal space that assists with their basic human needs, such as insulation, food, bathrooms, and showers, would provide some relief from the intense stress of street homelessness.

The theft of his ID was a big setback for John, who said he was supposed to start a job but couldn’t without identification. Theft is one of the biggest threats people face on the streets.

They’ve tried to navigate the city’s Continuum of Care system, doing everything they know to do. But so far, their names haven’t come up on the Homeless Management Information System as eligible for housing.

“They're finally starting to house people but it's just so slow,” John said.

Lisa and John said the crackdown on camping is wrong. If shelters are full, why should law enforcement be pushing people off state land?

“All they're going to do is take you to a homeless shelter that has no beds, or they're going to take you to a food bank,” John said. “It’s pointless.”

Lisa agreed, saying camping bans hurt more people than they help.

While Lisa and John wait for their names to come up for rehousing, they said police are already actively dismantling encampments. They see a disconnect between the way local law enforcement handles homelessness and how nonprofits are trying to alleviate the problem.

“Police are over here trying to break up the camps, and the housing people are over here trying to house those camps at the same time,” John said.

Heather Warlick is a reporter covering evictions, housing and homelessness. Contact her at (405) 226-1915 or hwarlick@epictextbooks.com.

More from Heather Warlick

  • As Eviction Filings Rise, Oklahoma Could Enact Right-to-Counsel Laws
    New reports show Oklahoma’s eviction filings are growing. Tenants who seek representation have better results than those who defend themselves. If cities are onboard, a HUD grant opportunity could create a bridge to guaranteed legal aid for people facing eviction.
  • Camping Bans Found Constitutional Despite Lack of Shelters
    A much anticipated U.S. Supreme Court decision allows municipalities to enact laws banning camping on unauthorized public lands. Previously considered Cruel and Unusual Punishment, the Court ruled fines and imprisonment are common penalties.
  • Anti-Camping Law at Odds With Local Initiatives
    Oklahoma’s growing homeless population faces new hardships with a new anti-camping law to be effective Nov. 1. Based on a model bill from The Cicero Institute, the new law could be the beginning of further restrictions and even government-sanctioned homeless encampments. That is, unless camping bans are determined unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court.

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