CLINTON – For Brittany Sullivan, homelessness is a place tucked away in a wooded area on the outskirts of this Custer County town 93 miles west of Oklahoma City. Hidden from the view of passing vehicles, she lives with a friend in a dilapidated, wooden shed with no electricity, running water, or doors.
At night, the shed’s two screen doors are wired shut. Inside, is a bed piled with clothes and two car batteries, which provide enough power to run a small light and a fan the size of a palm. Showers are taken outside with five-gallon jugs of water behind a folding exercise mat that is propped on its side. And an ice chest serves as a refrigerator.
“This is home,” said Sullivan, a 34-year-old Louisiana native whose navy-blue shirt reads “FIGHT LIKE A GIRL.”
“You’d be surprised what you can cook with a lighter,” said Sullivan, holding up a cigarette lighter and a can of cheese. “I’ve even made nachos in here, believe it or not. The tin keeps the cheese warm.”
Sullivan is among those who move in the shadows, sleeping in abandoned houses and under a canopy of trees by the railroad tracks and even in storage units. Social workers, church leaders, and volunteers say rural western Oklahoma’s ghost population of homeless are largely ignored save for a spirited few who battle daily to provide help.
There’s scant resources and no state funding. Along the Interstate-40 corridor, there is only one overnight shelter for men between Amarillo and Oklahoma City. In Elk City – a town of 11,570 residents – a nonprofit opened the community’s first day shelter recently to combat homelessness. But local leaders are reluctant to help finance an overnight shelter for fear it will attract transients.
Nationally, rural homelessness increased by nearly 6% between 2020 and 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Yet for those in the trenches of this struggle in Clinton and other rural communities in the state’s region, the acknowledgement of a notable homeless population is their greatest challenge.
“A lot of people in this community would be shocked if they knew how many homeless were living on the streets,” said Eli Colston, a benevolence team leader at TheEdge Church in Clinton. “There’s definitely a stigma to homelessness out here. A lot of people don’t even want to admit it’s a problem in their community. But they’re here, living under bridges and in abandoned houses and crowding into motel rooms.
“I know because I once lived on the streets … right here in Clinton.”
Colston, 34, wandered Clinton’s streets for more than two years while battling substance use.
“I saw a lot of people on the streets here,” Colston recalled. “It was not uncommon to stay in a one-bed hotel room with 35, 45 people crammed into the same room. I also lived under bridges, and once found an abandoned home between Clinton and Arapaho with the lights on and filled with a bunch of junk. I stayed there for two weeks. But I always kept moving. I never stayed in a place long enough to be noticed.”
He wears a tattoo memorializing the day he broke the chain of addiction – December 24, 2017. Five months later and still sober, he was arrested for outstanding warrants in nearby Washita County.
“It was time for me to pay the piper,” admits Colston, who said he eventually “found God ” during an eight-month stint in prison at William S. Key Correctional Center in Fort Supply.
Today, Colston helps others at this part-time job with the church, which has filled the breach left by no city or state funding. His team provides emergency assistance in a variety of ways, from utilities and clothing to food and shelter. Last year, the church provided help of some kind to 90 of 104 applicants. He estimates “at least 30%” of those he meets are homeless. The church also provides financial support to Clinton’s Mission House, the only overnight men’s shelter along I-40 in rural Western Oklahoma.
The shelter operates out of a century-old, two-story house covered in peeling blue paint that served as the living quarters for local nurses years ago. Mission House serves as many as 31 homeless people a day. Clients can stay for up to 90 days. Director Twyla Williams helps connect people with resources to lift them off the streets, combatting issues that range from unemployment to mental health needs. Clients must pass a drug test to be granted a bed, disqualifying some.
Mission House serves an average of 2,200 meals a week for anyone in the community who is hungry out of an adjoining kitchen. Many of the 1,950 people the nonprofit served last year also have children.
Mission House has an annual budget of $42,000, none of which includes city, state, or federal money. And the need is growing. TheEdge Church congregation has agreed to donate 20% of its tithings each month to the Mission House so it can eventually build a newer, larger shelter.
Local advocates say Clinton’s homeless population is likely undercounted and there’s not enough resources to address the problem.
“Our homeless population would definitely shock the average person living here,” said Williams, who conservatively estimated Clinton could have as many as 200 homeless people in a town of 8,380 residents.
Colston suspects that estimate is low.
“Easily, we could have as many as 200 homeless here in Clinton,” he said. “Remember, there are a lot of homeless folks that we never even come in contact with for one reason or another. But trust me, they’re out there. I’ve seen them.”
But Clinton Mayor David Berrong is skeptical. In fact, he doesn’t recall the issue of homelessness ever being addressed by the city council dating back to his first election to office in November 2016. He’s now serving his fourth term.
And there are presently no plans for the city to jump into the homeless issue.
“I think it might be more of a transient problem,” Berrong said. “But if there is a homeless problem here, I think it’s something we would address in a compassionate way as a community because it’s the right thing to do.”
Exact numbers have always been elusive with the homeless population, and even more so in rural regions. HUD requires communities receiving federal grants to conduct an annual point-in-time count each January of the homeless population. The count includes those who live in emergency shelters, as well as on the streets. Those numbers are merely a snapshot in time, but critical in applications for federal dollars.
In January, a count in the 19-county area that includes Clinton, much of northwestern Oklahoma and the panhandle showed a homeless population of 216 people — 86 living on the streets.
But the numbers don’t include people who are sleeping on couches, living in motels or cramped trailers with other families as homeless.
Weather can also play a role in the numbers. If the count happens on a cold night, more people will go to shelters.
Combating the stigma of a hidden problem
For 14 years, trips to the bus station to pick up another homeless person from some smaller town were commonplace for Lawton Housing Authority executive director Jervis Jackson. During that period, his agency led the Southwest Oklahoma Continuum of Care in a mission to end homelessness before handing over leadership to another nonprofit in 2021.
“A lot of rural communities outside of Lawton never wanted to admit they had a homeless problem,” Jackson said. “One town in Stephens County would pick up someone who was homeless and give them a meal. They might even put them up in a hotel for a night. But the next morning, they would put them on a bus and ship them to Lawton.
“The feeling was always the same: ‘We don’t have a homeless problem. We have a transient problem.’ That attitude prevails throughout those rural communities.”
This year’s county identified 409 total homeless people – 316 of whom were unsheltered, for the 16-county region that includes Lawton – Oklahoma’s sixth largest city with a population of 91,542 people.
Jackson estimates that about 85% of the homeless population counted in those numbers is in Lawton. It becomes harder to get an accurate count of homeless people in rural areas, he said.
Liberty McArthur, executive director of the Western Oklahoma Family Care Center, said she’s had to spend time raising awareness about the hidden problem of homelessness in her community. She started the organization in 2018 to fight homelessness in Elk City, 28 miles west of Clinton on Interstate-40.
“I’d go around town to try and raise money,” McArthur recalled. “Some people would say, ‘Oh Liberty, why are you doing that? We don’t have a homeless problem.’ Some people are just so far removed from that world, and well, you don’t know what you don’t know.
In January, the Western Oklahoma Family Care Center opened a day shelter where the homeless population can rest, shower, eat, and pick up hygiene supplies. The shelter is in the old National Guard Armory and is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. The non-profit also oversees a food pantry, as well as a medical and dental clinic.
“We’re trying to get an overnight shelter, but so far, the city council doesn’t want one,” McArthur said. “They think an overnight shelter would be a magnet for transients and then crime would rise. But I don’t think an overnight shelter would be a beacon for homelessness. I do think it would help those who are already homeless in our community.”
The face of homelessness in Clinton is as varied and complex as one might find anywhere in the nation. Mental illness, substance use, past criminal records, and those without the safety net of a family are all part of the equation. Although it isn’t as obvious as a group of roadside tents amid a cluster of trees in Oklahoma City or Tulsa.
Mission House is at the epicenter of the problem.
Sullivan said she journeyed to Oklahoma with her partner of 12 years to be close to her two children, who live with their stepmother in neighboring Weatherford. Both she and her partner were strung out on heroin and being evicted from their rental home when her partner “took off.”
For a while, Sullivan worked in the deli of a local grocery store, only to lose her job over her alcoholism – an issue she admits she still battles along with her drug addiction.
“I want to get clean,” Sullivan said. “I don’t wanna live this way. It’s not something I’m proud of, but I’m afraid of moving too far away from my kids.”
Sullivan sometimes walks into town to eat a meal at the Mission House, where Williams welcomes everyone with a hot plate of food and a smile.
“If it were just up to me, I’d let everyone who needed help live here,” Williams said. “Why should people care? Well, number one, it’s the Christian thing to do. But what if this was your daughter? Or what if this man was your brother? Sometimes, people don’t care until it touches their lives directly.
“I just love people. And I love what I do.”
Cesar Jimenez said he was traveling from Las Vegas with “two friends” in search of work when they abandoned him at a Motel 6 in Clinton.
“I was scared,” said Jimenez, 42. “I had no money. I have no family. I was standing in the pouring rain outside a Dollar General when a local man asked if I had a place to stay.”
The man introduced Jimenez to Colston, who brought him to the Mission House.
“I truly believe I would have died if I had been left on the streets. This place saved my life.”
Williams is now trying to help Jimenez find employment.
Stephanie Freeberg, meanwhile, has been one the shelter’s great success stories since her arrival in March. Her life spiraled into homelessness after 18 years in the United States Air Force, where she said she was honorably discharged after a medical mix-up. Her prompt exit from the military left her two years shy of qualifying for a pension.
“Instead, I ended up with nothing,” said Freeberg, now 46. “People said, ‘Why don’t you sue?’ I’m like, ‘Sue the government? Really?’
Freeburg ended up staying with friends in Sayre. Then she landed a job in Elk City working with medical records, where she worked for three years.
“But I made some bad decisions. I quit my job to go to school, only to learn I couldn’t get any financial help from my military service. I should have never quit my job without first having something firm in place. That’s when my life spiraled out of control.”
Depression set in, and with seemingly nowhere to turn, Freeberg descended into the darkest period of her life. In 2016, she ended up living in an abandoned building in downtown Burns Flat, a town of 1,955 people in Washita County. At night, she slept on a mattress under a pile of blankets. Her only companions for six years were seven cats.
“The police chief said I could either go to jail or the Mission House,” Freeberg said. “I really had no choice. I was just forced to gather my things and leave. The worst part was leaving my cats – my babies.”
Williams and her volunteer staff instantly recognized Freeberg as a perfect fit for Clinton’s Wear It Again thrift store, which helps finance the Mission House through its sales. Freeberg has already been promoted to store manager. As an employee, she also receives a weekly stipend and her own room at the shelter.
“I’m a very private person,” Freeberg said. “So, this is hard to talk about. I don’t blame anyone for what happened. I take full accountability for my bad decisions. Depression played a part, of course. I felt like a complete failure. And when you get so far down, that hole gets pretty deep.
Freeburg said help from Mission House has given her hope again.
“People look at you a certain way when you are homeless,” Freeberg said. “A lot of people choose to close their eyes. But for every person who closes their eyes, there are others who are there to help.”
Ron J. Jackson, Jr. is a bestselling author and award-winning journalist who has been writing professionally for 38 years. For more on his work, go to www.ronjjacksonjr.com