Oklahoma's Own In Focus: A Look Inside The Tulsa Day Center During January's Cold Snap

When a cold snap comes through, the Day Center said shelters see people who haven't asked for help in a while, and oftentimes, that help was needed long before fingers and toes froze.

Monday, February 12th 2024, 9:28 pm

By: Katie Eastman


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At 8:45 a.m. on January 15, the temperature hovers around a finger-freezing 5 degrees.

For the staff at the Tulsa Day Center, the need to rise and help those in need outweighs the temptation to remain bundled up in warmth.

"I was like, do I want to lie and say I can't make it in?" joked Emily Stevens as she checked people in at the front door.

One man rubs his feet to warm up, and he said the cold felt like a hornet was getting his toes.

Another woman ditched her tent four days earlier when she said she froze overnight.

When a cold snap comes through, the Day Center said shelters see people who haven't asked for help in a while, and oftentimes, that help was needed long before fingers and toes froze.

“Are you feeling nauseous?” asked Nurse Melissa Shotton as she welcomes someone into the Day Center’s free Clinic.

Shotton said she sees frostbite, but she also sees wounds and illnesses that have gone without treatment for far too long.

“We’ve had people come in with cancer that they’ve never gotten treated,” said Shotton, a ten-year veteran of the clinic. “Just amazing wounds that they tried to treat on their own when they were camping out.”

On this Monday in January, Shotton treats 50-year-old Phillip Abraham. He has an open wound from a spider bite and athlete’s food that he got more than a month ago from sleeping outside in damp conditions.

Recently, Abraham has been staying at the Salvation Army, where he said he needs to get a note from the clinic saying he is allowed to use up a second chair to elevate his leg.

“Being homeless is already hard by itself,” said Abraham. “But having an open wound and being homeless without a nurse’s clinic like this, I would not get cared for, and that’s the importance about this.”

In 2023, the Day Center treated a total of 2,243 patients, and that number has remained fairly constant over the last 5 years. But Clinic Manager Hope Hooks said, “the complexity of the clients has increased; they are much sicker; they come in in crisis or chaos,” and it takes more work to figure out their patient’s histories.

While the Point in Time Count showed an increase in homelessness of about 8% in Tulsa County from 2022 to 2023, Becky Gligo with Housing Solutions Tulsa said it’s the visibility of homelessness that is striking. Shelter capacity was reduced during the pandemic, and Gligo said that led to more outdoor encampments.

“We’re also seeing an increase directly related to our affordable housing crisis,” said Gligo. “So 97% of units, rental units in Tulsa are occupied. There’s no housing. And so we’re seeing more people fall into homelessness every single month than we could possibly re-house with the current housing stock.”

With homelessness comes a toll on the body, and Nurse Shotton has a front-row seat to that trauma.

“We don’t understand what it’s like,” she said.

She sees that toll on the coldest days and the warm ones, too. 

“Life happens, you know,” said Abraham.

On the coldest day in January, he left the clinic with his wound dressed and his feet dry.

“Oh, that feels good,” he said.

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