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Local Philanthropists Lead Effort to End Chronic Homelessness in Tulsa

Three years ago, Gail Richards and Judy Kishner, local philanthropists and cousins, decided to take on their dream of ending chronic homelessness in Tulsa, Oklahoma, by 2012.

Three years ago, Gail Richards and Judy Kishner, local philanthropists and cousins, decided to take on their dream of ending chronic homelessness in Tulsa, Oklahoma, by 2012. To accomplish this dream, they focused on the development of new units of “housing first” affordable housing. Their approach, unique to Tulsa, but beginning to be studied by others around the country, is a “debt free” model of housing, allowing rents to remain low and affordable for people with limited income or no income at all. This debt free model provides housing that is safe, affordable, decent, and sustainable. The specialized housing also provides supportive assistance to the residents when needed.

Working with the Mental Health Association in Tulsa, Richards and Kishner established a fund raising effort called Building Tulsa, Building Lives, raising millions of dollars to support experienced housing and service providers in the Tulsa community. To date, the cousins have raised $22 million dollars of a $30 million dollar capital campaign, which in turn has leveraged significant public brick and mortar funds, together with HUD Continuum of Care and state appropriated fee-for-service dollars. Building Tulsa, Building Lives has placed 171 debt free units on the ground in small apartments scattered across Tulsa. Funds have purchased a badly needed maintenance warehouse to provide storage for donated items and equipment to maintain the properties. Gifts and pledges have also funded a free transportation system that circuits among shelters, housing sites, treatment providers and shopping.
The biggest challenge for Judy and Gail came when the city was faced with the closing of the Downtown YMCA residence. Many of the YMCA’s 160 tenants had lived there longer than 10 years, in tiny units, subsisting with no food service and no private bathrooms. What were these very poor people expected to do? Where would they live?  Richards and Kishner did not accept the answer that these individuals, many disabled, and many working very low income jobs, would be able to find affordable housing from the very limited housing options in our sprawling community. Neither would they allow these vulnerable individuals to become homeless and forced to go to the shelters of our city.

Their answer was to engage their families’ foundations – the Zarrow Families Foundations – and the foundations of others in the community and state, and to leverage additional public funding for a new, debt free and sustainable 76 unit apartment building with single room occupancy and one bedroom apartments. The $10.2 million dollar apartment building, now open, includes a commercial kitchen and dining services, common living areas for activities and relaxation, exercise room, outdoor seating and library. The building (pictured above) has private meeting rooms for area service providers to meet with residents when needed, and transportation service. The building is staffed by resident assistants, many of whom were previously homeless and now gainfully employed in the brand new facility. And, each apartment has its own private bathroom to go along with voice mail, cable, and internet options.

Judy and Gail’s personal commitment and vision, alongside the broader Building Tulsa, Building Lives campaign, has inspired a variety of other important related community initiatives. Specific examples include:
  • The initial vocal resistance and media coverage related to the development of the new building provided an opportunity to educate people about homelessness, mental illness, and its causes. It gave people in the Tulsa community a chance to come out to meet the residents. Gail and Judy personally led many of these tours, helping people overcome their fears by introducing them to the people who would become their new neighbors.

  • The cousin’s leadership has resulted in more than 70 homeless, mental health, and physical health providers and organizations coming together to work to increase their levels of collaboration. Through this effort, service providers of all shapes and sizes have increased their awareness of each other, and are working to secure service quality improvement and greater efficiency in use of resources.

  • Gail and Judy helped a local youth service provider purchase two apartment buildings to provide housing for transitional age youth coming out of the child welfare system.

  • They also provided funding to coordinate outreach to faith communities located in the neighborhoods near the housing to help the congregations overcome their reluctance of inviting these individuals to attend their places of worship.
While the economy has slowed their fund raising efforts, the two cousins are undeterred and their dream to end chronic homelessness in Tulsa endures. Private philanthropy and leadership – combined with critical funding from the federal government – just might make that dream a reality.

Mike Brose came to the Mental Health Association in Tulsa as executive director in 1993. During his tenure, the organization has become one of the nation’s leaders in the development of specialized housing for individuals who have been homeles and mentally ill. Mike serves as a vocal advocate for systemic change to increase access to care and improve the quality of mental health services in an environment that is both cost-efficient, and effective. 

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