A large homeless encampment in Norman is catching the eye of passersby on Interstate 35, and the city says it may be there a while.
The area just off the Highway 9 on ramp is filled with tarps, tents, and even structures that look professionally built.
Michelle Evans, the Norman Homeless Program Coordinator says it is one of the largest encampments in Cleveland County. While numbers fluctuate, she estimates there are 10 to 15 people living there on average.
The goal of the city - and their many partners - is not to evict, but to find a stable situation for the individuals.
"We try to get those individuals into a housing plan and out of the elements," Evans says. "That is our first concern for everyone, keeping those individuals safe."
Evans says even if they wanted to evict, this encampment like many others is on private property.
"If we run into an encampment such as this that is on private property, we get in touch with the homeowners or property owners rather and we build that connection," says Evans.
Evans says the city's hands are also tied by the pandemic and CDC guidelines.
"We do not want to disband any encampment at the moment because of COVID restrictions because we don't want those individuals then to be out in the community and spread further. We do want to contain them."
The pandemic also helped create an increase in the homeless population.
While the numbers aren't finalized yet, Evans estimates the population of those without shelter increased 20% since January when the number was 215.
Evans says she hasn't heard any complaints about this particular encampment even from the property owner, but she has heard concerns from community members about what is being done about the influx.
"A lot of times we just don't notice the resources that are out there because we do see the homeless population growing," she says. "Perception is just that. The work that is being done on this on a daily basis is just insurmountable."
She says trained case workers visit the individuals often, working to build rapport. They hope to help them overcome objections to seeking shelter. Those reasons could be anything from past trauma at shelters to fear over their things being taken.
"Trust is fundamental to us in creating a plan. We may go down there every day and build that rapport, build that trust."
She points out that every case is different.
"There are mental health barriers, sometimes substance abuse barriers and that's when our expert case managers are coming into the fold," says Evans. "We let them to their work and we let them handle that case by case. On behalf of the city, we do not evict anyone in these encampments."
This month an additional warming shelter was opened at 325 Comanche Street. It is adults only and houses up to 35 people a night. So far, Evans says they haven't been close to reaching capacity.
Evans says there is a plan in place right now to work with the individuals living off I-35 and Highway 9. It's unclear when they will be able to carry the plan out. It may be up to the individuals and the end of the pandemic.