Sedgwick County Commissioner Lacey Cruse makes a point about the need for greater emphasis on homelessness during a September meeting of the Wichita City Council and the Sedgwick County Commission. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Sedgwick County Commissioner Lacey Cruse sees reality of homelessness, and evidence of connections to mental and physical health, from her front porch in the poorest zip code in Kansas.
Cruse is among political officials in the city of Wichita and Sedgwick County who believe in the necessity of unifying forces working on the problem and better coordinating financial resources targeted at root causes of homelessness, especially with influx of millions of dollars in federal aid tied to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Homelessness is a visual representation of mental illness, substance misuse and violence,” Cruse said on the Kansas Reflector podcast. “It is a visual representation, so we can see it. But we have to think about mental illness and substance misuse and all those other things with it. We have to put tangible things in place with measurable goals. And we all have to be on the same page.”
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development conducts an annual point-in-time national estimate of homelessness. The most recent HUD report published in March, based on counts conducted in January 2020, indicated the number of homeless in Kansas stood at 83 for each 100,000 people, well below the national rate of 174 per 100,000. Kansas does better that its four neighboring states, which ranging from 170 per 100,000 in Colorado to 98 per 100,000 in Oklahoma.
HUD reported four consecutive years of rising homelessness in Kansas after documenting declines in the previous five years. It added up to a 21% expansion of that population from 2010 to 2020.
The same report, which hasn’t taken into account the economic turmoil and housing complications of the pandemic, suggested 2,400 people were homeless in Kansas. One-fourth of the total, or 619, was in Sedgwick County, with Shawnee County at 467 and Johnson County at 180. The snapshot revealed nearly 1,000 homeless Kansans in more rural areas of the state.
Moving the needle
Cruse, who joined the county commission in 2019, has been a persistent advocate for developing stronger community partnerships, focusing on diversity and inclusion and concentrating on behavioral and mental health issues.
She’s raising questions that make some politicians uncomfortable, as she did at a joint meeting of the county commission and Wichita City Council in September. She launched into a lengthy speech about moving the needle on homelessness. Her objective is to bring about change on basic humanitarian grounds and in the interest of making effective investments of tax dollars, she said.
“Someone’s hungry, we give them food,” Cruse said during the podcast interview. “Someone needs a place to sleep, we give them a bed for the night. But are we really sort of moving toward a systemwide change? I would have to say that currently we are just simply maintaining a system that isn’t moving the needle toward eliminating the problem. I hope that we can sort of have a systemwide discussion around how the system itself needs to change.”
Cruse, who grew up in Parsons and went to college in Wichita, said personal experience convinced her homelessness was sometimes fueled by people who were very sick and hadn’t received underlying care for their condition or addiction.
Cruse’s grandfather committed suicide when her father was 12 years old, she said. About a decade later, she said, her father’s youngest brother shot himself in her parents’ living room.
Her parents had three children, but divorced when Cruse was four years old. Her mother took her two brothers to live in Topeka, but left Cruse with her alcoholic father. The father of Cruse’s own two children has been absent due to addiction.
She said personal anguish in her life cemented a drive to help others in Sedgwick County avoid what she endured.
“It is heartbreaking to say the least, you know, walking outside of my front porch and seeing all the folks that are yelling at each other or picking through my trash,” Cruse said. “We have to make people aware of what’s happening. And I feel like that’s really my drive, the things that have happened to me in my life are really the driving factor as to why this is important to me.”
‘What is our priority?’
Sedgwick County Commissioner Jim Howell, a Republican and former state legislator, said the county’s expenditure of scarce dollars needed to be driven by data and a reality check that not every spending idea could be accommodated.
“We have a zero-sum game of tax dollars. What is our priority? It can’t be all the above,” Howell said.
Cruse, a Democrat who serves a district that includes a chunk of Wichita as well as Valley Center and Park City, said Sedgwick County was right to add more money in its budget for bed space dedicated to people suffering substance misuse disorders. Federal COVID-19 funding is earmarked to convert a 50-room hotel to housing for the homeless, she said.
The idea is the housing can help people get to other supportive services that include access to doctor appointments, medication pickups and job placement, she said. The strategy must be to interrupt cycles that bring about homelessness, she said.
Cruse said she was intrigued by the concept of a diversion hub established in Oklahoma City to reach addicts before they got locked in the criminal justice system. An estimated 70% of people at the Sedgwick County Jail have substance abuse issues, she said.
“We need to stop criminalizing addiction and stop criminalizing mental health,” Cruse said. “Get them into a psychiatry appointment, get them into a mental health worker, get them into medications that will help them deal with the underlying conditions so that they don’t assault police officers or so that they don’t rob a store.”
She said homelessness was long considered a City of Wichita concern, but Sedgwick County should have a bigger supporting role.
“We need rehabilitation rather than punishment. I think our criminal justice system for a very long time, that’s been the mentality,” she said.
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