2022 Letter to Donors
Press Release: Grace Day Center hires new Executive Director
Press Release: Grace Day Center temporarily closes for 60-days; Leadership to conduct program evaluation, seek community help
The Grace Center of Southern Oklahoma will close its Grace Day Center, a daytime shelter program for the homeless and housing insecure, for 60 days beginning Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022. The Center plans to reopen the program on Monday, March 7, 2022.
The difficult decision comes after an exponential increase in individuals accessing the Grace Day Center over the last year. Specifically, the staff has served an increasing number of chronic and unsheltered homeless individuals. Many suffer from mental health and substance abuse disorders as well as unresolved traumas. A year ago, in January 2021, the Grace Day Center averaged 26 individuals visiting the shelter in a day. Last month, the Grace Day Center average rose to 61 individuals, an all-time high for the organization.
“With the current staff and location, the Grace Center Board of Directors does not feel it is appropriate to continue the program until an in-depth evaluation can be conducted,” Carolyn McElroy, board member of the Grace Center of Southern Oklahoma, said. “Over the next 60 days, Grace Day Center staff will research day center models and present a plan for operating the Grace Day Center with fewer program participants. Grace Center leadership will begin exploring opportunities to increase partnerships and referrals with other social service agencies, community organizations, and nonprofits.”
The Grace Day Center opened in fall 2009 as a solution-based program to provide homeless individuals, many of who were staying at one of the two Ardmore overnight shelter programs, a respite from the downtown streets during the daytime. The Grace Day Center offers individuals the opportunity to bathe, wash clothing, access technology, store key items, assist with identification documentation, and be referred to other agencies for additional services, including employment and housing.
Nationally, data suggests that the homeless population is increasing. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the number of people experiencing homelessness nationwide increased by two percent between 2019 and 2020. Researchers connect the growth to the swelling population of unsheltered homeless, individuals who do not access overnight shelter programs.
In late January 2021, Ardmore homeless service providers participated in a Point-In-Time Count, an annual survey of homeless individuals in a community, organized by the Ardmore Homeless Coalition. Carter County recorded 45 people experiencing unsheltered homelessness. Ten people were counted as experiencing homelessness in emergency shelter programs. In total, 129 individuals were documented as experiencing homelessness.
“As a community, shelter – both day and night – is part of a continuum and safety net for homeless individuals and families,” Laura Akers, executive director of the Grace Center of Southern Oklahoma, said. “Between late July and early November, for the first time in 20 years, Ardmore was no longer home to overnight shelter programs for homeless residents. Children of the King Baptist Church closed its 20-year-old shelter ministry program for renovations. Salvation Army Ardmore closed its shelter due to a staffing shortage. Grace Center leadership believes that as a community, investments are needed to ensure that all parts of the continuum are solid for any effect on lowering the homeless population. This month, Grace Center leadership will embark on discussions with government leaders, law enforcement, leaders from behavioral and addiction services, business leaders, law enforcement, and funders to discuss the future of a day shelter program in Ardmore. Grace Center leadership is committed to an evaluation and believes that day shelter services are needed. What revisions can be made to better serve homeless residents and the community?”
The Grace Center of Southern Oklahoma functions through two interrelated arms: the Grace Day Center and the Grace Resource Center. Southern Oklahomans have long turned to the Grace Resource Center for emergency financial assistance for utilities, rent, prescriptions, and education. The temporary closure of the Grace Day Center will not impact services offered by the Grace Resource Center, which will remain open for its services along with its new focused housing solutions programs, such as Rapid Re-Housing.
“It’s a very heartbreaking and a difficult decision to make,” McElroy said. “The Grace Center will emerge a stronger organization with its continued commitment to serve our neighbors in need.”
To learn more about the Grace Center programs and services, call the Grace Center at 580-223-2027.
A guest column that appeared in The Ardmoreite on Oct. 3, 2021
On March 1, 2022, the Grace Center of Southern Oklahoma's Board of Directors hired Linda Heitman as the new Executive Director. Linda is originally from Houston and moved here from Brownwood, Texas where she was the Executive Director of Brown County Home Solutions, a faith based organization addressing homelessness. During her tenure, she greatly expanded the Community Financial Assistance program and Transitional Housing program. In addition, Ms. Heitman opened an Emergency Shelter for the homeless, the first in Brownwood's history. She is passionate about giving the homeless a hand up. Her other experiences include ministry, low income property management and bookkeeping/accounting. We are looking forward to her working with us. Ms. Heitman will take over the Executive Director duties on March 2, 2022.
Understanding Ardmore’s homeless crisis calls for reviewing recent efforts, proposed solutions
Over the last few years, homelessness has metastasized to create a crisis in Ardmore. A rising homeless population, a lack of overnight shelter, and an ongoing COVID crisis have led to the emergency our community faces.
For the first time in 20 years, Ardmore is no longer home to an overnight emergency shelter program for our homeless residents. In 2019, Children of the King Baptist Church closed its nearly 20-year-old shelter ministry program for renovations. Despite the best efforts to rehabilitate the church building into a modern shelter for men, women, and families, the progress has been slow and the shelter remains closed. This past July, the Salvation Army Ardmore shelter closed its doors at night due to a staffing shortage. The closure was temporary, with reopening set for in two weeks, but months now have come and gone and the shelter remains closed.
Emergency shelters play a critical role in community efforts to not only provide a safe place for people experiencing housing crises but also keep the unhoused out of sight and save taxpayer dollars. With no overnight programs, police officers, code enforcement, first responders, and emergency room staff are forced to respond to the needs of, or caused by, the homeless, at the cost of taxpayers and city budget. In the morning hours, it's downtown neighbors and workers who pick up trash and clean the human waste before starting their day. These escalating problems have created widespread anger amongst the downtown community. For our homeless residents, sleeping outside is becoming an increasingly dangerous situation. Not only are vulnerable homeless individuals susceptible to abuse and predation, but they are also sadly subject in our community to derision, harassment, and ad hoc, sometimes dangerously ill-conceived solutions.
When I arrived at the Grace Center of Southern Oklahoma in 2019, I was drawn to the Grace Day Center program and serving its homeless clients. Between 15 to 20 people would visit the center each day. On a busy day, there might be upwards of 30 people. While our staff recorded the number of showers taken and cups of coffee poured, at that time we didn’t know much else about the population we were serving, other than anecdotally. Our newly hired Day Center Director, Karlie Harper, began sounding the alarm about her observations of clients suffering from severe mental illness, many of whom were going untreated, as well as a lack of social services to provide a path for moving from homeless to housed. I responded, along with Harper’s assistance, to meet with fellow community leaders who come in contact with the homeless population. Our meetings took us everywhere from the police department to Mercy Hospital, and from the Salvation Army Ardmore to Lighthouse Behavioral Health Centers.
The Grace Center committed to better serving its homeless clients. The board of directors and I viewed it as an investment towards addressing a need that was far costlier to ignore.
We entered a partnership with Lighthouse to bring a mental health caseworker to the Grace Center once a week. We established a voucher program with Good Shepherd Community Clinic to connect homeless clients to medical care. The Carter County Health Department arrived for flu shot clinics and later COVID vaccination pods and health testing. Faith leaders gathered for a lunch and tour of the Grace Center. I began to have meetings with homeless service providers across Oklahoma -- where I found that Ardmore was not cutting it when it came to addressing homelessness. As a community, we had woeful federal data about the number of homeless individuals in Carter County. For example, in 2020, 7 people were recorded to have been homeless in Carter County.
In addition to our inaccurate homeless statistics, our community was not in tune with the current best practices for addressing homelessness. Cities, including rural communities like Ada, have created a homeless pipeline services model shepherding clients from homeless outreach, to emergency shelters, to supportive housing, and, finally, to permanent housing. A wealth of empirical research supports these pipelines and the effectiveness of their services. Such services are nowhere to be found in Ardmore. There are no caseworkers solely dedicated to homelessness in Ardmore.
To begin to address this dire lack of unified services, the Ardmore Homeless Coalition, a coalition launched by the Grace Center with participation from leaders in business, foundations, faith, health, social services, and more, created a 3-5 year strategic plan for a homeless services approach.
Last January, the homeless service providers and local schools completed the federal Point-In-Time Count survey for Carter County where 129 people were counted as experiencing homelessness. Those numbers were sent to the federal government. Organizations teamed up to collaborate on services and submitted a federal grant request to bring homeless caseworkers, legal aid attorneys, and mental health caseworkers to the Grace Day Center five days a week. The United Way of South Central Oklahoma accessed a federal funding source, previously foreclosed to our community, for rent and utilities.
Additionally, our social service partners began addressing some of the concerns voiced from the first three Homeless Coalition meetings. Ardmore Behavioral Health Collaborative took on the task of creating an updated list of community resources. Lighthouse Behavioral Wellness Centers initiated crucial training like Mental Health First Aid to fellow social service organizations. The Grace Center launched a temporary overnight emergency shelter program to meet the needs of a rising street homeless population in the late winter of 2021.
These important steps to address a fragmented system came as the numbers of our community members falling into homelessness and poverty continued to climb. Recently, on Aug. 26, 68 people visited the Grace Day Center for services.
The last few months have been hard and challenging for the Grace Center. I’ve heard complaints from community members that the Grace Center is not moving fast enough on our work, or that we are taking too long to accomplish the goals of the homeless coalition--even that we are responsible for the increase in homelessness. There is no group of people who want solutions for shelter and increased services for homeless residents more than those of us at the Grace Center and the coalition. I learned a long time ago that anything worth doing takes time, hard work, and courage.
The current system is no way for homeless people to live. Furthermore, it's bad for our community at large. That’s why, in September 2021, the Grace Center was awarded a nearly $140,000 Emergency Solutions grant from the Oklahoma Department of Commerce with funding from HUD to launch a Rapid Re-Housing Program, which is designed to help individuals and families quickly exit homelessness and return to housing, and to fund an overnight emergency shelter program. When the Grace Center offered its temporary overnight emergency shelter program for 47-nights, the program served 43 unique individuals, including veterans, the disabled, pregnant women, and the elderly. The Grace Center averaged 8 sleeping clients each night. Two paid staff members watched over the clients and the property each night. By the time the program ended, two clients had secured employment, and one homeless Vietnam veteran was relocated to a nursing home program. Once a fire sprinkler system is installed — which was required by the City of Ardmore when it shuttered the program in April — the overnight program can resume and begin to temporarily house up to 10 members of the street homeless each night.
Providing emergency shelter is an efficient and necessary response to the needs and dignity of those sleeping on sidewalks, under business’ facades, in parks, or under bridges.
The Grace Center has partnered with the Oklahoma Housing Finance Authority to help southern Oklahomans with the application and housing search process for the Emergency Housing Vouchers from HUD. This was a program that came about quickly from a Congressional coronavirus relief package and is similar to the Housing Choice Voucher program. In the last two weeks, the Grace Center helped three Ardmore households get approved for the voucher. Several applications are currently pending with OHFA. If the Grace Center hadn’t partnered with OHFA, it is unlikely this program and federal dollars would have made their way to Carter County residents and landlords.
In the midst of a cacophony of opinions and proposed approaches, these are the necessary steps toward building a system that addresses Ardmore's humanitarian homelessness crisis while caring for the least of these, many of whom are our neighbors, and improving the community for all.
Laura Eastes Akers is the executive director of The Grace Center of Southern Oklahoma, a nonprofit organization committed to preventing homelessness while providing essential services to those in the community experiencing homelessness.
MTC Federal Credit Union Foundation Announces $10,000 Grant to Grace Center as Part of COVID-19 Response
Grace Center Providing Rent and Utility Assistance to Those Impacted by the COVID-19 CRISIS
ARDMORE — MTC Federal Credit Union Foundation today announced a grant to the Grace Center of Southern Oklahoma. The $10,000 grant award supports the organization's efforts to serve families directly affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
“With the coronavirus wreaking havoc across the county, forcing the closure of schools and businesses, and causing an economic downturn, the Grace Center’s established financial assistance program is here to help the community," said Laura Eastes Akers, executive director of the Grace Center. "The grant award from MTC Federal Credit Union Foundation allows the Grace Center to make an even larger impact on southern Oklahoma families who are experiencing financial hardship due to the economic effects of the pandemic.”
“MTC Federal Credit Union is actively involved in giving back to the communities we serve. We believe we have a responsibility to make a difference for others through a sense of community. This partnership in philanthropy is an example of how we can achieve this goal collaboratively.” said William H. Love, Jr. CEO of MTC Federal Credit Union.
Households that are struggling to pay for basic living expenses may apply for assistance at www.ArdmoreGraceCenter.com. To qualify, households must be able to support their claim of hardship due to COVID-19 with a notification from their current or previous employer, or a medical note. Additionally, the household must have a need for rental and/or utility assistance. Applicants must be residents of Carter, Johnston, Love, Marshall, or Murray counties.
About Grace Center of Southern Oklahoma
The Grace Center of Southern Oklahoma is a nonprofit organization working to prevent homelessness, inspire self-sufficiency, and provide essential services to those who are experiencing homelessness.
About MTC Federal Credit Union
MTC Federal Credit Union, established in 1976, is headquartered in Greenville, SC with more than $212 million in assets. MTC Federal is a not-for-profit financial-cooperative, federally insured by the NCUA, serving automotive manufacturers, their families and communities with branch locations in South Carolina, Alabama, and Oklahoma. Member-owners have 24/7 access to consumer financial services including credit and deposit services, loyalty rewards, membership perks, and lifetime benefits. To learn more about MTC Federal visit MTCFederal.com.
About the MTC Federal Foundation
The MTC Federal Foundation is a 501c(3). Of the donations raised, 100% of funding goes to support Education, Disaster Relief, Community Charities that benefit our cooperative. As a cooperative, the Carolinas Credit Union Foundation is the philanthropic administrative partner to the MTC Federal Foundation.
Oct. 3, 2021 The Ardmoreite guest column "Understanding Ardmore’s homeless crisis calls for reviewing recent efforts, proposed solutions"
June 14, 2020 The Ardmoreite news article "A helping hand: Area nonprofits offer utility assistance"
April 29, 2020 The Ardmoreite guest column “A robust census benefits community, gives piece of mind”
Feb. 13, 2020 The Ardmoreite news article "Pushing back on taxes"
Feb. 11 2020 The Ardmoreite news article "Grace Center opens financial literacy course to the public"
Oct. 24, 2019 The Ardmoreite news article "Having Soup-er time; Local agencies to host soup luncheon fundraiser for United Way"