City Assistance Vs. Mutual Aid in the Tulsa Freeze

As Tulsa temperatures dove below freezing over the last week, houseless Tulsans found themselves in the face of lethal weather and a dangerous winter storm. Concerns for those remaining outside were only heightened by the discovery of an unsheltered man frozen on the street on February 11th. 

Efforts to aid these individuals came from the City of Tulsa, nonprofits, and mutual aid organizations like Life Change Tulsa, 918 Cares, the ScissorTail Brigade, SHOTS Tulsa, Tulsa Community Fridge Project, and Tulsa Food Not Bombs (TFNB). However, the City and these orgs approached the crisis very differently. This conflict came to a head on the night of February 13th. 

Grassroots organizers and community members came together to collect both monetary and material donations for individuals who remained unsheltered. Volunteers from TFNB stood by at an encampment located at Maybelle Bridge on Reconciliation Way, distributing these donations to the individuals camped there. 

On February 12th TFNB declared the area “the Maybelle Emergency Zone” (the MEZ). In a post they wrote:

“As the temperatures keep falling we will see more horrifying losses of life not just to the weather but to the city of tulsa’s and Mayor’s GT byums inaction and unwillingness to value the lives of our houseless neighbors. Tulsa Food Not Bombs has declared the Maybelle Bridge (maybelle and reconciliation way) an emergency zone, the Maybelle Emergency Zone (The MEZ). Tulsa Food Not Bombs had been coordinating hot meals and weather appropriate supplies for the tulsa houseless community in this area for some time now and we will continue doing so. We will be at the MEZ distributing warm supplies,hot meals, snacks and drinks and ensuring the safety of our houseless neighbors until
either THE CITY OF TULSA establishes a long term plan for the city to provide adequate housing for our houseless neighbors
OR we - Tulsa Food Not Bombs will be out here until the weather is over 40 degrees and dry.
We are looking forward to a response from the city of Tulsa.”

On the morning of February 13th, a press release from the City of Tulsa reported that The Tulsa Area Emergency Management Agency (TAEMA) was “working to provide material assistance to shelter operations to ensure they have the ability to continue to serve the community.” 

The press release ensured that the belongings of those who agreed to take shelter would not be confiscated. Further, it discouraged donations of firewood to homeless encampments, and instead urged concerned citizens to contact Housing Solutions, a non-profit organization focused on homelessness in the Tulsa area. 

“While this gesture shows the overwhelming kindness of Tulsans,” the press release explained, “being outside in extremely cold temperatures with wind chills below zero still pose a very real threat, regardless of a firepit in place.” 

Then, at 5:46 p.m. on February 13th, TFNB posted a photo of a bulldozer and dump truck on the site of the MEZ. The caption read “City is here Tulsa!!! Be ready to stand up for your neighbors!!!!” 

Taken from a Tulsa Food Not Bombs Livestream

At 6:22 p.m., TFNB released a live video on Facebook of volunteers speaking to Mark Hogan, the Director of City assets, and a TPD officer who identified himself as Sgt. Brill. 

“These people need to be in shelter,” Hogan says in the video. 

The TFNB volunteers explained to Hogan that those who remained at the MEZ were aware that there were shelters that would take them. The volunteers cited trauma, shelter barriers (some common barriers being: no pets allowed, limitations on personal items, and drug tests), and fear of property loss as just a few reasons some unsheltered individuals were choosing not to go indoors. 

“We meet people where they are and where they want to be and provide the utmost safety for them and that is what is happening,” one unseen volunteer can be heard saying, “And whenever you take that firewood, you are taking a little bit, a huge bit, of safety.”

Sgt. Brill said he wanted to keep the peace. “I get that they don’t want to go anywhere but where they are at right now,” said Brill. “And they have the right to say that, but if the city wants the street cleared, and the fire department is not wanting fires, then we’ll have to abide by those rules.” 

About thirty minutes into the video, another man who identified himself as “a representative of the fire marshall” explained why the decision had been made to remove all fire wood. In the video, he cites the two instances of fire being brought into a tent and concern about possible carbon monoxide poisoning, or the spread of a fire. 

“You told us at 4 to deal with the fire inside the tent. We dealt with the fire inside the tent,” a TNFB volunteer responded. 

The video ended shortly after this exchange. 

Cult Love Sound Tapes arts worker, Lauran Drummond arrived at the MEZ around 8 p.m. to drop off a trailer of firewood after a Food Not Bombs call for donations. 

 Photo provided by Lauran Drummond

“There were tents lined up and makeshift shelters with tarps on either side of the sidewalk and then on the street underneath the bridge,” Drummond said. 

“We showed up right as TPD and the fire department got there,” she said. “And at that point they were talking to FNB representatives and informing them that the firewood was going to be confiscated. They were like, ‘this is a fire hazard, we’re taking it.’”

Drummond reported that the officials asked for the street to be cleared by 10 p.m. 

“I can’t think of any reason why the city would wait till after dark the night of the storm to do this,” Drummond said. “This (the MEZ) has been there multiple days and they waited till after dark the night the storm was rolling in to do that. I will never understand why they would do that.”

Another witness, who wished to remain anonymous, arrived with a bus around 9:00 to help pack up donations from the MEZ. 

“We pulled up, started loading up those donations,”the witness said. “We were there probably not even 10 minutes when the police said we had 5 minutes to get the bus out of the way.” 

The witness saw police going through tents to gather all the remaining firewood. “There was definitely an air of frantic immediacy, because...the community volunteers understood the dangers of what these people experiencing homelessness were about to go through,” the witness recalled. 

In another live video from TNFB at 8:58 p.m., a representative says:

 “We were told that we had until 10 p.m. to remove all of the things that the generous community members of Tulsa donated...We’re currently staring at the city dump truck that has now told us we have exactly 5 minutes. We also have different city officials trying to arrest folks whenever they remind them that they are not allowed to touch anyones belongings in the tents, but they are still going through them to try to find firewood. Thank you to everyone who has come to gather up these donations so they don’t further go to waste. We’ll keep you all updated thanks for looking out for your neighbors.” 

The struggle between the City of Tulsa and grassroots organizers goes deeper than just firewood. It is a disagreement about how best to serve Tulsans experiencing homelessness. 

In the video of the exchange between Sgt. Brill, Mark Rogan, and TFNB volunteers, the theme of trust came up often. 

“If people don’t want to go, they don’t want to go,” said a volunteer. “I think that it’s a failure on the city that they have no safe options that they trust...I think that that’s a problem of the City that they don’t trust any of your solutions for them. And they’d rather stay out here. I think that shows that the City has not done enough for homeless people.”

There are many reasons this trust may not be there. In 2018, Tulsa passed ordinance 23918, making it a public offense to “take up one’s abode” on public property. 

Taken from Tulsa City Ordinance 23918

In a 2018 article for the Oklahoma Policy Institute, Lydia Lapidus argued against the ordinance writing, “By heaping more fines on people with virtually nothing, punitive responses like these only perpetuate the cycle of homelessness and cost taxpayers thousands in jail and emergency service costs.”

As recently as this summer, this ordinance has allowed the City to remove an encampment on Archer St. 

Importantly, the events of Saturday night play on the background of an ongoing pandemic where crowding in shelters poses another threat: COVID-19. In a way, the houseless were torn between two warring hazards. 

The National Homeless Law Center lists several recommendations for how to assist the homeless during the pandemic. Among them: a moratorium on sweeping encampments. This has been done in Reno, NV, and Oakland and Chico, CA. 

Even now, the story appears to be far from over. 

GT Bynum responded this morning to the events of Saturday night. In a Facebook post he wrote:

“I really want to thank all the homeless outreach professionals who have worked across organizations this week to get everyone sheltered. They’re having to do this in the midst of a pandemic, with an extended period of sub-freezing temperatures, and with well-intentioned but misguided volunteer groups complicating their efforts to get people indoors.”

At around 4:00 p.m. today, Tulsa Food Not Bombs posted the below image with the caption: “We’re dealing with quite a bit from the City of Tulsa right now. We have quite a bit to share with y’all on that front but since it seems we’re in immediate danger of arrest and all of us are still working nonstop we wanted to make y’all aware…”

Photo taken from the Tulsa Food Not Bombs Instagram

You can follow the City of Tulsa and Tulsa Food Not Bombs on their respective social media accounts to stay up to date as this story continues to unfold.