The Citizen Spotlight is a project I started with Oklahoma Gazette to highlight people in our community who stand out for their leadership, kindness and good deeds. Read this story on the Oklahoma Gazette website here.
Helping doesn’t have to be complicated—sometimes the simplest of actions can have a substantial impact.
Rob Watkins knows what it’s like to be on the street and how quickly a change in circumstances can land someone there.
Rob found himself homeless in Oklahoma City after a difficult divorce was followed by the false promise of work in Dallas. It was the Homeless Alliance themselves that helped Rob get back on his feet. He worked as a Curbside Chronicle vendor before securing housing and loved the organization so much that they created a position for him. He now serves as a referral specialist at the Homeless Alliance. In his free time, Watkins started a Facebook group to help connect those struggling with homelessness find the resources they need often simply to survive.
“I got here in July 2014 and was on the street and eventually got a job as a vendor with the Curbside Chronicle,” Watkins said. “I got housing in 2019, so I made the OKC Homeless Resource Group as a way to give back to the community that has given so much to me. Because one thing I found when I was homeless is there are a lot of resources here in the city, but a lot of people don’t know about them. So then they go away because nobody’s using them, and they aren’t using them because nobody knew about them. I just made this page as a way to help people network and get what they need.”
It didn’t take long for the group to build a substantial following. Since its inception, nearly 3,000 have joined. Watkins has made connections with city and state agencies, council people and many of the grassroots organizations that work with the homeless in the metro area, allowing him to direct those in need to their services.
“People make Facebook pages for all kinds of silly stuff. I thought this would be something that would be beneficial to anybody because the main focus is homeless people and those in need. If someone wants to know when they’re doing free meals or when the buses are free, they can find it there. And it’s really grown. There’s almost 3,000 people that follow the group now. And they’re not all homeless people. There’s people from the city government, churches, people that work at DHS. What’s been great is times like when somebody has a question about food stamps or services, not all the time, but sometimes people from DHS or from Oklahoma housing or whatever will interact with these people. They’ll tell them, ‘Hey, if you have a question about your food stamps, here’s my name, here’s my number, call me,’ and that’s been really helpful, especially when people are looking for housing. We’ve got people that own properties and reach out and say, ‘Hey, I’m a landlord. Call me.’ And that was kind of always my goal, I never wanted it to be about me. I want it to be a community thing, for people who need it.”
The feedback Watkins receives continues to fuel him and give him some purpose.
“I have a lot of people that tell me, ‘Your page is really important, because people can go on there and get connected with exactly what they need’ and that’s how I wanted it to be,” Watkins said. “I talked to Jared Shadid who is over the homeless planning for all of Oklahoma City. He added me to their email list so that I can tell people when the shelters are going to be open. Because 3,000 people is no joke. There are people from all kinds of agencies, so the people at the city level are starting to see the value. I never would have thought a city or government agency would follow me. I was just trying to create a central hub for homeless people. Because of the way it’s grown, if you’re new to the city or if you’re new to homelessness, you can just go there—it’s kind of a one stop shop. Someone is going to try to help. You’ll know when the buses are free. You’ll know when people are giving away clothes, who’s having a free meal, where and when. People are always sharing and posting stuff on there. I talk to people almost every day, especially when the cold weather rolls in. The shelters are going to be open, people will be out with food, coats and sleeping bags and other resources and people need to know about them.”
More than just resources, the group allows Watkins and others to help families keep tabs on members living in homelessness, giving them peace of mind that their loved one is okay, despite the often very complicated and unfortunate circumstances.
“When I was on the street, parents would find out that I was friends with their kids and they would reach out to me and be like, ‘I just want to thank you for looking out for my son or my daughter’ or whatever. And about a month ago, I had a lady call looking for her son. Now her son is like, 35, but you would think he was 15 the way she was talking about him. But I was able to tell her, ‘Your son is doing fine. I saw him two days ago at the bus terminal. He came over to me, we talked and he hugged me and he’s doing okay,’ which helped her because she’s been legitimately worried about him because she hasn’t seen him in six months. So it’s good that I can have those relationships with people, if their parents or family call I can let them know what’s going on,” he said.
Rob attends monthly meetings focused on homeless issues and works with city leaders to bring focus to the needs of the homeless community whenever possible. When looking towards the future, Watkins sees instability in social media, so he’s working on a website solely dedicated to the cause.
“With things like the layoffs, you don’t know what’s going on with Facebook from one day to the next, so I’m working on a website,” Watkins said. “It’s called OKCStreetSheet.com. I chose the name because it doesn’t reference homelessness, it doesn’t reference anything, so there’s no stigma attached. I haven’t really done a whole lot with it yet, but it’s there because eventually I’d kind of like to migrate off of Facebook. People need a way to share information. There needs to be an easy to access central hub where people in the community can know about what’s happening on the streets, where the feedings are and where to get clothes and when housing or jobs become available.”
Rob’s actions show that helping doesn’t have to cost anything, just a bit of time. Simply taking action and doing what you can, when you can, that can create exponential reach.
“I don’t have a lot of money. I don’t think I’ll ever be the guy that donates $100 million or whatever,” Watkins said. “But I can make a Facebook page where people can interact and share resources and help that way.”
To connect with Rob and the OKC Homeless Resource Group visit their Facebook page.