Edmond homeless
Breakfast on Boulevard serves hot breakfasts and sack lunches from 6:30 a.m. to 7:15 a.m. on weekdays in the basement of First Christian Church located at 201 E. 2nd St. in Edmond. (Joe Tomlinson)

When people experiencing homelessness in Edmond are encountered by police, the situations typically culminate in one of three results: a brief conversation without intervention, a possible offer of transportation to Oklahoma City for social services, or an arrest and detention at the Edmond Municipal Jail.

That’s because, historically, Edmond has had no shelter to accommodate homeless people, even on an emergency or temporary basis. When temperatures drop below freezing, the Edmond Police Department will offer rides to OKC for shelter and more robust access to resources.

But starting next month, Edmond’s resources for people experiencing homelessness will improve, at least a little. NorthCare, a mental health service provider, is planning to open a temporary clinic at East 9th Street and Bryant Avenue to provide care for those recovering from mental illness, substance use, trauma or crisis. Anyone seeking services can be seen by mental health professionals at NorthCare, regardless of insurance status or ability to pay.

Such services could have been helpful in August, when two Edmond police officers were dispatched to the Edmond Church of Christ in reference to “a suspicious subject,” according to a report filed by EPD Officer Ben Daves. Upon arrival, Daves and another unidentified officer found Zachary Campbell lying next to an empty bottle of vodka.

“What about getting drunk and passing out over here in front of a church seems like a good idea?” one officer asked the man, according to body camera footage (embedded below).

The man replied, “I’m minding my own business,” to which the officer said, “You’re on someone else’s property, sir. You’re not minding your own business. This is not your property.”

“This is God’s property,” Campbell said. The officer directed him to stand up and put his hands behind his back. Slurring his speech and exhibiting signs of potential psychosis, the man claimed the two officers were the FBI.

In response, the other responding officer told Campbell he needed to “find somewhere else to go.”

“I told you you weren’t welcome in the city limits anymore, too,” the officer said. “You are not welcome in the city of Edmond anymore. You need to find somewhere else to go. I made that clear last time.”

Prior to Campbell’s arrest for public intoxication, EPD had already arrested him four times in 2022 — twice for public intoxication and twice for trespassing after being warned.

Owing to his “lengthy criminal history,” the police report states, a misdemeanor charge for public intoxication was filed in Oklahoma County District Court rather than in Edmond Municipal Court.

He previously pleaded guilty to burglary in the second degree after stealing a GPS from a car in 2014. After his plea, the man’s sentence was deferred, and he was committed to the Oklahoma Forensic Center in Vinita. In 2019, former Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater dismissed Campbell’s 2014 case “in the best interest of justice” after he completed a program with Oklahoma County Community Sentencing.

In response to the August arrest footage, Edmond Police Chief J.D. Younger said he hopes the officer’s statement that Campbell is “not welcome in the city of Edmond anymore” was “at best, poor communication.”

“We don’t prohibit anyone from being in town,” Younger said. “It’s not law enforcement’s job to do that. We’re not accepting that role to accept or not accept people in town. Everyone is welcome here.”

However, Younger said his officers do respond to behavioral issues that are reported by Edmond residents.

“There is a standard of expectation, and it’s not the police department’s standard. It’s the community standard, and we do play a role in that,” Younger said.

Younger said people experiencing homelessness who are arrested in Edmond are given advisement of available resources that they can access, such as meals provided at First Christian Church and the Ministries of Jesus free clinic.

However, with no residential shelters and limited behavioral health services in Edmond, the unhoused are most commonly encountered by police, who routinely and repeatedly arrest them for minor offenses.

‘We have essentially criminalized homelessness in Edmond’

In 2022, the Edmond Police Department made 288 arrests of 131 people who self-identified in booking reports as “homeless” or “unhoused.” On Jan. 12, NonDoc requested that the City of Edmond provide a summary of bonds, fines and booking costs related to homeless arrests in 2022, but that data was not made available prior to the publication of this article.

Edmond Municipal Court Judge Diane Slayton said she refuses to issue “failure to pay” warrants for low-income or homeless individuals seen in her courtroom.

“I’ve never done a failure to pay warrant on any. Never,” Slayton said. “It doesn’t do any good. It doesn’t serve any purpose, and it’s certainly not justice.”

In total for 2022, 83 people who identified as homeless were arrested once, while 48 people were arrested multiple times. Five people accounted for 19 percent of homeless arrests in 2022. Largely, these arrests are for criminal charges such as trespassing, public intoxication or failing to appear for a court hearing related to a previous charge — infractions reflected by the reality of living on the streets.

With its population increasing about 16 percent between 2010 and 2020, Edmond is the fastest-growing large city in Oklahoma, but the city’s housing is scarce. If that trend continues, the number of people experiencing homelessness in Edmond is likely to increase, although available data about Edmond’s unhoused population provides only limited information.

Edmond ‘point-in-time’
homelessness counts:

2018: 20
2019: 5
2020: (N/A)
2021:  2
2022: 11
2023: 14

During a 2021 point-in-time count, a one-night snapshot census of homelessness in a community, only two people were identified. In 2022, 11 people in Edmond were identified as experiencing homelessness. In 2023, that count increased to 14. The one-night count is conducted each year by the city’s community block development grant team in conjunction with EPD and community volunteers, but the relatively low numbers stand in contrast to EPD arrest figures.

Some Edmondites are concerned the city is not doing enough to provide for the homeless population and, instead, could be criminalizing homelessness.

An Edmond resident, private investigator and former public defender, Shaun Hittle routinely tweets about EPD’s arrests of unhoused individuals when weekly booking reports are released.

“We have essentially criminalized homelessness in Edmond. It is pretty much illegal to be homeless in our community,” Hittle said. “These arrests — public intoxication, trespassing, failure to appear on misdemeanor warrants — these are all judgment calls. These are all situations where an officer could almost arrest every homeless person every day, if they wanted.”

Hittle said that because those experiencing homelessness are often unable and unlikely to show up for court dates, police end up repeatedly arresting homeless people on failure to appear warrants.

“They’re oftentimes not going to show up to court, and so they are always going to have a warrant out on them,” Hittle said. “And that’s what you see in the data is that these people, every time the police come in contact with them, they could arrest them. And oftentimes, they are.”

Younger disagreed with the sentiment that homeless individuals are more susceptible to public intoxication charges because of their lack of housing, saying that in these situations, “there’s probably a precipitating action or a call that necessitated contact.”

“The reason you could go home if you’re publicly intoxicated and have a home is because you made a decision not to take an action that would bring you in contact with police,” Younger said.

NonDoc also requested that the City of Edmond provide data breaking down 2022 EPD arrests of people who self-identify as homeless by whether the encounters are officer-initiated or in response to dispatch calls. The information was not provided prior to the publication of this article.

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‘Trying to figure out what is the best thing to do’

People experiencing homelessness in Edmond took refuge from the summer heat in a green belt near 15th and Kelly. (Michael McNutt)

When temperatures drop below freezing, Edmond police offer those experiencing homelessness rides to OKC for shelter and more robust access to resources.

“They monitor the areas where we have individuals that may need shelter,” said Christy Batterson, the city’s community development block grant program manager. “Those that are most vulnerable, they provide resources and, if need be, provide rides down to the Oklahoma City shelters, if requested.”

OKC has 850 beds across its shelter system. A 2022 point-in-time count found 1,339 people in OKC experiencing homelessness. A report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that, between 2020 and 2021, the state of Oklahoma saw a 19 percent decrease in bed availability for the unhoused, the largest percentage drop in the country.

Dan Straughan, executive director of the Homeless Alliance in OKC, said a homeless and mental illness committee focused on Edmond meets quarterly and is chaired by Younger. During the pandemic, Straughan said that group “fell by the wayside,” but it started meeting once again in 2022. That group is not a formal committee established by the city.

“I think there’s a recognition that the City of Edmond is maybe relying on neighboring municipalities to bear the burden and recognizing maybe that’s not entirely appropriate,” Straughan said. “But [they’re] trying to figure out what is the best thing to do. When you’re starting from scratch, it’s challenging.”

Straughan said a “Band-Aid solution” for homelessness-related arrests would be to provide a residential shelter in Edmond, so that those experiencing homelessness have a place they can legally reside.

“In Edmond, it can be pretty small and pretty low impact on the rest of the community, because wherever you put it in Edmond, there’s going to be pushback from NIMBY (not in my backyard) people,” Straughan said. “But if you have the law enforcement, the city manager’s office and the service provider community saying, ‘As a community, we have an obligation to provide this and we’ve looked all over the city, and this is the best place for it,’ and (they) present a united front, then you can make that happen.”

Straughan said a longer-term solution, which applies for both Edmond and Oklahoma City, is to incentivize the development of “truly affordable housing.”

“(We need) public housing or more Section 8 vouchers and incentivizing developers, especially multifamily developers, to set aside some percentage of total units developed for very low-income and low-income people,” Straughan said.

Straughan said Oklahoma City’s continuum of care housed about 14,000 homeless individuals throughout 2022, but those numbers keep increasing.

“What’s driving that more than anything else is just the lack of affordable housing compared to the level of poverty in the community,” Straughan said.

Chapman: ‘This is not a police problem’

Edmond homelessness
The Edmond Public Safety Center is located at 24 E. First St. (Joe Tomlinson)

Ward 1 Edmond City Councilman David Chapman, a developer who serves on the homeless and mental illness committee with Younger, said incentivizing affordable, multifamily developments is improbable in the city. Chapman and Ward 2 Councilman Josh Moore, another property developer, have been vocal advocates for adding affordable housing in Edmond, but their efforts have faced community opposition.

“Do you actually think that can happen in Edmond?” Chapman said. “They just don’t want it. They don’t want affordable housing here.”

Similarly, Chapman said he would expect some Edmond residents to protest the construction of a homeless shelter in the city. Chapman said he is unsure whether shelters alleviate or exacerbate homelessness in a community.

“If you look at the models, and I think they can look at Norman as a model, they did not have a huge homeless problem until they built that shelter,” Chapman said. “It’s an interesting dilemma. Shelters are attractions, so I don’t know if it takes care of your problem that you currently have or if it grows the problem.”

Chapman said Edmond’s homeless and mental illness committee has started a database that identifies chronically homeless individuals within the community and the services they need. Currently, there are 18 people within that database.

“The first step is to understand them as individuals and try to help them individually. Every one of them has got a different story, and they are all in a different place, so you can’t treat them all identical,” Chapman said. “And then you have got to get the expertise involved, and that’s what we are trying to do with the (NorthCare) partnership.”

While NorthCare is opening a temporary location at West 9th Street and South Bryant Avenue, the community mental health center already has purchased a permanent location at 15th Street and South Kelly Avenue that is expected to open in December. The Edmond City Council has allocated $1.45 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to renovate the permanent facility.

At the beginning of 2022, EPD had two NorthCare case managers embedded within the department who helped those who came in contact with police find resources and co-respond to suspected mental health crises alongside officers. However, those two employees have since accepted jobs elsewhere, Younger said.

If given the opportunity to hire case managers to embed within the department again, Younger said EPD would “take advantage of that,” but he said such professionals are in high demand.

“We would love to continue to have that resource embedded, but what we’d love more is just the community to have access to it,” Younger said. “If the best way for the community to have access to it is through the planned outpatient treatment services, well then that’s the best way to do it and we’ll work within that framework.”

Chapman noted that the issue of homelessness in Edmond is one that the community must solve collectively, rather than leaving for police to handle.

“This is not a police problem. This is a societal problem,” Chapman said. “It’s an obligation, frankly, that we have got to take care of and we have got to figure out, and the police are stuck with it.”

Younger praised the community for its involvement on the issue.

“Maybe it’s inappropriate for society to view (the homeless) as a law enforcement problem, but I think in Edmond, the community really has taken the lead, and I feel like the police department is just a part of a larger coalition,” Younger said. “We may be more visible because we are taking calls and we’re checking on people. But I don’t believe that our community has made it a law enforcement problem. I believe our community is recognizing it’s a concern for the community, and that we need to work together to make sure we have services available for people that find themselves in these conditions.”