ENID, Okla. — It’d been largely quiet on the West Randolph front since the city of Enid removed the picnic tables from the Breezeway.
But on Friday, someone ripped up all the books in both of the miniature library shelves in the downtown walkway, said Natalie Beurlot, Main Street Enid’s executive director.
“Honestly, it was really sad to see the books destroyed,” Beurlot said, “because they are free resources for both children and adults … to help encourage reading within our community.”
The area at 214 W. Randolph has sat empty for over a week, nearly incident-free since Sept. 18, when Enid City Manager Jerald Gilbert had the four tables and two benches removed. Gilbert said he plans to install more cameras, add more lighting and secure the electrical outlet boxes.
The changes came after months of reports of harassment, public intoxication and other illegal behavior by those who’d frequent the area the most during the day, reportedly a small group of Enid’s homeless population.
The permanent changes of removing amenities were the city’s first efforts to address what downtown business owners are reporting as growing safety problems in the area stemming from some of those experiencing homelessness.
From Sept. 18 to last Friday, Enid Police officers have responded to one incident in the area, of someone reportedly smoking crack cocaine on Sunday, Sept. 20. No one was in the Breezeway once officers arrived, though, so no report was generated, EPD spokesperson Cass Rains said.
The changes to the Breezeway are permanent and meant to make downtown customers and business owners feel safe, Gilbert said, as the city continues a longer-term, “holistic” approach to deal with Enid’s growing homelessness issue, one that extends beyond the Breezeway.
‘The look of that block’
Since Main Street Enid’s creation in the mid-1990s, downtown Enid has been the site of the city’s economic and cultural prosperity and preservation. Beurlot called downtown “the heart of the community.”
“We want people to feel safe. We need to take pride in downtown. We need to respect our space and make it a place where people can enjoy,” she said. “I guess I like to say ‘we’ because Enid is a wonderful community, and I love to feel connected to it.”
MSE last Sunday organized a cleanup day throughout downtown. Around 50 people pulled weeds and filled seven poly-carts of trash in over two hours, Beurlot said.
The city of Enid’s five-year comprehensive plan, Envision Enid, ranks enhancing downtown as the No. 1 priority to improving the city’s overall well-being.
The plan lists the entire area as one of the Enid’s two “regional destination centers,” the other being the area of West Garriott and Oakwood. According to this plan, regional destinations have an influence that spreads beyond both Enid and Garfield County, being hubs of “lively commercial activity.”
Regional destinations can also be a place to foster local businesses that help to differentiate Enid from other communities, according to the plan.
And the 200 block of West Randolph, where the Breezeway is located, has the highest concentration of privately owned businesses in downtown, with nearly every building facade on the north side of the street at a width of 25-30 feet. While some shops have opened within the last year, several like Muncy Photography and the Bridal Shop have been in business for at least a decade. Others moved onto the block after doing business elsewhere, such as the Felt Bird and the Pastry Nook.
What is now the Breezeway, which sits in the middle of the block, was for many years a store building itself for myriad businesses, including a grocery store, a paint store and eventually Wilson Mattress Factory. A fire burned down the mattress store in 1995.
After the fire, the city of Enid purchased the building the same year and collaborated with Main Street Enid to create a pedestrian mid-block walkway in its stead. The city then hired Corbin & Merz Architects to renovate the space in 2013, adding a brick wall, fresh paint and corrugated metal, creating what is now called the Breezeway.
Main Street Enid partnered with the Northwest Oklahoma Association of Realtors to further renovate the walkway in 2015, adding picnic tables, bushes, miniature murals and utilities. Additional support came from the city of Enid, Conrady Electric, Humphrey Abstract and Michael Dotson, who built the miniature, fully stocked bookshelves.
“It’s another place that needs to be maintained to keep up the look of that block,” Beurlot said about the Breezeway.
The area is now used regularly for live music performances during downtown Enid’s First Friday events. This Friday’s is Oktoberfest-themed and will be twice as large due to COVID-19 precautions, Beurlot said — the blocks of 200 Randolph and 100 North Independence will be closed off for the biergarten and other festivities.
“It was not planned at all this way, but this is literally just when it happened,” she said, regarding the recent Breezeway changes near this week’s First Friday. “We’ve had a couple First Fridays already, and if we were worried about (problems), we would’ve done something then.”
‘From place to place’
The other EPD incident listed from the last week in the downtown area took place on Friday, Sept. 18, outside Our Daily Bread, at 616 W. Randolph. No report was generated either. At 10:46 p.m., its director reportedly called the police to ask a woman sleeping on the benches outside to leave, which she did.
“They just keep getting ran off from place to place,” said Enid Faith Ways’ Rhonda Stevison, who regularly ministers to Enid’s homeless. “They’re scattered everywhere, and you just go from place to place, because you know where they hang out at.”
Cheri Ezzell, CDSA’s executive director, said people have congregated downtown for years because of proximity to free food resources such as Our Daily Bread and the Salvation Army, which also operates an overnight shelter, as does Forgotten Ministries several times a year. CDSA also operates an emergency shelter. Hope Outreach’s daytime shelter, open on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., offers showers, a washer and dryer, a phone and even a usable mailing address, as well as a volunteer program for ID vouchers.
During an input session CDSA held at its downtown Non-Profit Center in June, individuals experiencing homelessness said a main problem was the lack of relief stations such as bathrooms, lockers and showers. According to minutes from the meeting, attendees also said installing port-a-potties and misters would be beneficial.
During Enid’s COVID-19 pandemic shutdown last spring, several port-a-potties and sanitation stations were installed downtown, but were removed when the city reopened in June, Gilbert said.
Open to the public since then, the Public Library of Enid and Garfield County last month got back its tables to add to the open seating areas, but no longer provides extensions to its 90-minute computer time — both changes made due to the pandemic. Stevison said she believed the library no longer lets homeless people come inside to use its facilities such as its bathrooms, free internet and air conditioning/heating.
Representatives from the library initially declined last week to comment on Enid’s homelessness, but on Monday, library spokesperson Michaelene Malan said in an email all community members are able to use the restrooms, access the internet and make use of the air conditioning/heating. Due to the pandemic and health concerns, seating is currently limited to one or two people at each of the socially distanced tables.
Wi-Fi reach has also been expanded outside the building since April 2020 for a stronger connection for those not comfortable coming into an enclosed environment.
In September of last year, CDSA reported 178 total homeless persons in North-Central Oklahoma, including but not limited to Garfield County, according to its annual application report to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Of those reported as homeless, 146 reside in emergency shelters.
Of those, 46 were reported as severely mentally ill, 40 reported chronic substance abuse and 43 were unaccompanied youth (most from age 18-24).
Matt Lohman, CEO of Hope Outreach Ministries, said its weekday shelter receives anywhere from 12 to 50 visitors a day, many either chronically or situationally (temporarily) homeless.
He estimated around 100 people have typically made up Enid’s homeless population — a group difficult to census or even define, Lohman said, since many of those considered “homeless” have a house to stay, but often no running water or utilities, or “couch surf” from house to house to sleep.
Lohman also speculated the number of those experiencing homelessness in Enid has increased by about 25%-30% since the pandemic — not an increase in those newly homeless, but from more people moving to the area, he said. He didn’t have a clear explanation for that besides further speculating it was due to the pandemic or Enid’s already-active resource system for homeless people.
Not the only solution
Like he said during a city commission study session two weeks ago, Gilbert, the city manager, intends on a two-step approach to meet the needs of the city’s homeless population.
The first: his immediate response of changing the Breezeway by removing its amenities. The second: a plan to financially support long-term efforts by area agencies and nonprofits who already care for the homeless.
Besides money allocated from Community Development Block Grants, Gilbert said, “With funding, I guess we haven’t done that necessarily in the past.”
He said one-time funding is possible from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, the $2.2 trillion stimulus bill allocated through states. The city of Enid has available a total of about $4.5 million in CARES funding.
City commissioners earlier this month approved CDBG’s allocating $100,000 each in CARES Act funding to both CDSA and the Catholic Charities Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, intended for mortgage, rent and utility assistance to residents affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. In April, CDBG had given both a combined $200,000 — $140,000 to CDSA and $60,000 to Catholic Ministries.
The city has requested a reported $67,000 more the CDBG will allocate for “homeless distancing, sanitation efforts and additional essential services.”
Gilbert said James Neal, with Old Catholic Ministries of the Holy Cross, as well as the News & Eagle, has taken the lead on organizing a meeting to form a coalition, with the plan to develop a proposal to take back to the city commission.
Neal said 22 organizations — including Salvation Army of Enid, Catalyst Behavior Services, EPD and Hope Outreach — have agreed to attend/send representatives to the first meeting of the Enid Community Coalition for the Unsheltered on Tuesday afternoon at Central Christian Church.
Neal said any more organizations are still welcome to participate and can contact him at HolyCrossEnid@gmail.com.
Stevison, with Enid Faith Ways, said the city and this coalition need to find and create a communal place for the homeless that’s both safe and near the regularly provided resource centers.
“That’s something that they thrive well, is when they’re together,” Stevison said.
Closing their eyes
Stevison said she wished faith-based groups weren’t the only ones regularly meeting the needs of Enid’s homeless, who just want “someone they can talk to.”
That’s why Enid Faith Ways, along with Holy Cross, will host its first event marking World Homeless Day on Oct. 10 — a “sleep-out” to mimic one night on the streets.
Salvation Army of Enid will serve free meals, provided by Enid Faith Ways, Holy Cross, CDSA and First Presbyterian. A resource fair will be held with the meals from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., in the parking lot of First United Methodist Church.
Local ministries and nonprofits are seeking participants for a resource fair and a “sleep-out” event Oct. 10 in observation of World Homeless Day.
Those who are willing and able are also asked to fast from their evening meal on Saturday until the evening meal on Sunday, to mirror the resources available to Enid’s unsheltered population.
“(Other people) close their eyes and try to pretend they’re not there. But they are there,” she said.