City staff members say homeless shelter needed

Robert Smith
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

Police Chief Lorrie Hennesy recently commented to Pawhuska city councilors about the frequency with which police officers encounter persons living in structures that have no utility service.

Hennesy told the Journal-Capital that she and Steve Hughes, the municipal code enforcement officer, both encounter such situations on a regular basis.

"We both see a lot of it," Hennesy said. Pawhuska, which has a population of about 3,350, is the capital of the Osage Nation and the home of The Pioneer Woman Mercantile. In the past several years, it has been making the transition from a declining small town in cattle country to a bustling tourist destination. It still has dilapidated houses, however, and a population of homeless persons that Hughes says is larger than you might think.

Asked to estimate the general size of Pawhuska's homeless population, Hughes said it might be 40-50 people at any given time, but he returned to the conclusion that it's "a lot more than most people realize."

Hughes said he has enforcement tools that he can use, but those don't solve the fundamental problem.

"But what do you do with the people?" he said. "We need some kind of a homeless shelter -- a John 3:16 type place." The John 3:16 Mission is a well-known Tulsa homeless shelter.

Hennesy voiced the same sentiment.

"I feel we need a good shelter," she said, noting that she had a building in mind that might be suitable.

Hennesy said one source of generally temporary homeless residents for Pawhuska is North Tulsa. Osage County includes a small portion of the Tulsa metro area, and Pawhuska is the county seat. The result is that troubled persons from Tulsa, who have no transportation of their own, are frequently transported by law officers to Pawhuska for court proceedings.

When the court proceedings are over, economically challenged Tulsa residents have no way to get home. There is no ride service that caters to them.

Hughes also commented on the problem of Osage County District Court defendants with no way to get back to Tulsa or other locations.

"I've witnessed it firsthand," Hughes said, explaining that stranded defendants sometimes come to the Pawhuska Community Center on Lynn Avenue, where his office is located, to ask if they can call someone to come and get them.

"That's a huge problem," Hughes said. "Most of the people that are in that situation, they've burned every bridge that there is in terms of friends or family."

Once a defendant from Tulsa does make it back home from Pawhuska, he or she may face further difficulties. There may be additional court dates, and the defendant may miss hearings because of a lack of transportation. Then the person may be arrested on a bench warrant because of a missed hearing and brought back to Pawhuska, where they have no support system.

"It's a mess," Hughes said. He explained that he also encounters persons who are without appropriate housing in Pawhuska for other reasons. Some of the homeless have no families or dwellings. They may have substance-abuse problems. They tend to move from one dilapidated structure to another, he said.

Then there is a population of people who appear to be allowed by family members to live in rundown structures owned by the family. Some of these individuals may even run generators at times to provide themselves with electricity, Hughes said.

"In most cases the houses are in bad repair," he said. "We're having a hard time taking care of it. We can write them tickets, and I have."

Both Hughes and Hennesy said that impoverishment due to a lack of employment is really not a problem, as far as they are aware.

"There's work everywhere," Hughes said. Hennesy said she has encountered a problem with some people not actually wanting to work.