As Wichita embraces efforts to reduce homelessness, profound challenges remain
County commissioner: ‘We don’t have enough quality, affordable places, and the addiction rates in our community are so astronomical that we just don’t have enough recovery type services’
A man lies under shading on July 19, 2022, on North Topeka Avenue in Wichita, Kansas. Temperatures reached 108 degrees in Wichita that day. (Lily O’Shea Becker/Kansas Reflector)
Homelessness in Kansas
This is the first article in a series about homelessness in Kansas.
Part one: Wichita increases resources to reduce homelessness, but more housing and health services are needed
Part two: Backlash in Lawrence over the cleanup of a homeless camp exemplifies the city’s unique challenges
Part three: Homelessness stretches beyond urban borders, where bipartisan legislation could help address housing shortages
WICHITA — Staci Ellis left a verbally abusive relationship and ended up homeless in Wichita for nine months before settling into an apartment about four weeks ago.
Ellis, who describes herself as a huge advocate for the homeless population, has been homeless four times. She said everyone in Wichita’s homeless community knows her because she previously worked at a shelter where she collected and handed out donations.
The way Ellis sees it, one of the biggest challenges for Wichita’s homeless population is knowing where to get help.
“Our homeless community has massively changed in the last year,” Ellis said. “I mean, a lot of people that I knew a year ago that were on the streets are actually housed now. Now we have this whole new group of people who have no clue where the resources are.”
As someone who has struggled to find affordable housing, Ellis’ experience resonates with many others in Wichita.
Wichita and Sedgwick County officials, advocacy groups, nonprofits, and homeless individuals have been working to alleviate the causes of homelessness in Wichita. Their efforts include increasing affordable and available housing with low barriers to entry, embedding supportive services in rehousing programs, a reimagined approach to policing, filling positions on advisory and community boards with current or formerly homeless individuals, and restructuring appropriated funding.
Despite those efforts, Wichita still faces profound challenges with homelessness.
The Wichita-Sedgwick County Point-In-Time Homeless Count identified 690 people experiencing homelessness in 2022, an 11.5% increase from 2020. On the night of the point-in-time count on Feb. 24, 844 formerly homeless individuals were in housing provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Continuum of Care-funded projects, such as Wichita’s Homeless Preference Housing Choice Vouchers and the Wichita-Sedgwick County Housing First Program.
Advocacy groups, government officials, nonprofits and homeless individuals say supportive services provided by permanent housing can address the root causes of homelessness. Permanent supportive housing differs from other housing assistance programs because there is no time limit to the benefits it offers.
“It’s like the analogy, you can’t teach someone to swim when they’re drowning in the ocean,” said Lacey Cruse, a Sedgwick County commissioner. “You got to bring them to shore and teach them the fundamentals before you can throw them out into the ocean.”
All 54 affordable housing studio apartment units at The Studios at HumanKind in Wichita are occupied. A waiting list was created after its opening in October.
Private, corporate, nonprofit, and government organizations worked together to convert the 316 Hotel in Wichita into a permanent housing complex with the goal of increasing safe, low-income housing for Wichita’s homeless population. The Studios, owned and operated by HumanKind Ministries, provides supportive services, such as on-site case management, health care and life skill classes.
Wichita has an affordable housing deficit of 50,000 units, according to HumanKind Ministries.
While the lack of low-income affordable housing is among one of the leading causes of homelessness in the United States, supportive services aimed at helping homeless individuals achieve self-sufficiency will reduce homelessness, said April Holt, who has built relationships with many homeless individuals in Wichita.
According to HumanKind Ministries, permanent supportive housing has a long-term retention rate of up to 98%.
“We need to understand why they’re homeless to begin with,” Holt said. “We need to work on fixing that. Throwing a voucher at somebody saying, ‘Go get a house,’ is not going to fix them being homeless, because more than likely, the thing that got them homeless to begin with, it’s going to make them homeless again.”
Holt moved to Wichita about 17 years ago and began volunteering to help the homeless for a few hours every week. Once the pandemic and lockdowns began, she decided to dedicate more of her time to volunteer work.
“She’s a very good person,” Ellis said. “She is in her van, and believe me, her van is packed. She’s out there driving around the city, going to different places that she knows people are at, and she’ll go take different things to them — hygiene or snacks or some water.”
Holt said many homeless individuals with housing vouchers do not receive the case management support they need. She said some have told her their case managers did not show up when they were supposed to.
HumanKind Ministries employs two case managers with offices on the first floor of The Studios to help the residents there, setting it apart from other housing services.
Meeting with case managers once a week is a condition of living at The Studios. The two case managers have staggered work hours to accommodate residents.
HumanKind Ministries has designated case managers across all its programs. In addition to The Studios, HumanKind Ministries operates emergency homeless shelters, an extended stay homeless shelter known as The Inn, and long-term housing known as The Villas. Case management is only mandatory at The Studios.
Before the building was transformed into The Studios, it was known as 316 Hotel and used as a transitional housing shelter. Wichita and Continuum of Care helped HumanKind Ministries buy the property. The transformation was made possible with $2 million dollars in funding from the city, HUD Cares Act and private donations, according to a news release from the city.
The Studios at HumanKind was designed to give access to affordable housing for people facing housing barriers, such as those with eviction histories or criminal backgrounds.
The apartments — located in one of the poorest ZIP codes in Kansas — range from 400 to 550 square feet and are fully furnished units for individuals. The average expected stay is one to three years. Utilities are paid for, and many residents are voucher-based. That means they pay as little as nothing to 30% of their income — if viable — in rent.
The Studios gives residents six months to obtain paperwork that is usually required upfront when renting, said Emily Lohfink, marketing and communications director at HumanKind Ministries.
“That’s another huge barrier that The Studios, with these vouchers, takes away from a lot of people,” Lohfink said.
Housing First is another program providing permanent housing and supportive services. The international program is designed for chronically homeless single adults and, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, is cost efficient because it helps reduce the number of homeless individuals using emergency services.
Those who participate in Housing First must have a disabling condition, such as mental illness, physical illness, a substance abuse diagnosis or a developmental disability. They are required to have a case manager, who is typically contracted from an outside case management agency. These case managers work with Housing First clients to help them find an apartment, and weekly at-home check-ins are expected. Clients are expected to pay 30% of their income toward rent, but an income is not required to apply.
Since the Wichita-Sedgwick County Housing First Program was established in 2009, it has contracted case managers from case management agencies. This year the city of Wichita and Sedgwick County restructured its funding, allowing Housing First to hire its first case manager solely dedicated to Housing First clients.
“For several years, the number of chronically homeless experiencing physical disabilities continued to increase — for which no agency currently provides case management services to,” said Shelly Haupt, a senior housing specialist for Wichita. “As a direct result, these persons were (underserved or) not served. We hope the addition of a dedicated Housing First case manager will allow special populations not currently served by other agencies to have access to the Housing First program.”
According to HumanKind Ministries, 957 of the 1,100 clients served in their shelters in 2020 suffered from behavioral health disorders. More than half suffered from substance abuse disorders.
Cruse, the county commissioner, serves on Wichita’s Mental Health and Substance Abuse Coalition and focuses on the role behavioral health and substance abuse disorders play in homelessness.
Cruse lives in the Midtown neighborhood of Wichita, where she sees homelessness every day — whether it is while driving to and from work at the Sedgwick County Commissioners’ office or sitting on her front porch drinking coffee at 7 a.m.
Just behind Cruse’s house sits an abandoned former restaurant where drug use is common. The building has broken windows and trash thrown about the interior.
“It really does attract a lot of drug activity,” Cruse said. “I have personally picked up three hypodermic needles from my backyard.”
Cruse has installed a privacy fence between her backyard and the building.
She built a relationship with a homeless man — an alcoholic and paranoid schizophrenic who slept behind the abandoned building — by bringing him coffee in the morning. She said he did not want to live in a shelter because he did not like being around crowds and had gone a long time without receiving medical care.
“He was really untreated,” she said. “He hadn’t gone to the doctor in a while. He had a really intense infestation of lice. He just really wasn’t well. And as I’m trying to build this rapport with him, he ended up dying in the cold.”
Cruse said before he died earlier this year, he had been charged with trespassing, taken to jail and released. He was one of at least five homeless people to die in Wichita this past winter because of the cold, KMUW reported.
“Once you get picked up and taken to jail, they send you something in the mail saying when you got to show up for court. … Where are they supposed to send it to? You know, he doesn’t have a house,” Cruse said.
She wondered whether the time and money used to arrest the man could have been used to set up a mental health appointment for him instead.
“You know, the problem is we don’t have enough quality, affordable places, and the addiction rates in our community are so astronomical that we just don’t have enough recovery type services,” Cruse said.
According to Sedgwick County, opioid and meth use are its main substance abuse concerns. Between 2015 and 2019, drug-associated deaths by county residents increased by 38%.
In 2013 the Wichita Police Department established its Homeless Outreach Team, known as H.O.T., with the goal of taking a different approach to Wichita’s homeless population.
Police could see previous approaches weren’t enough.
“I found myself arresting the same homeless people over and over again, for jaywalking, drinking in public, and they go to jail for a little bit, and then go back to the streets,” said Officer Nathan Schwiethale. “And then the next day I’d see them and we’d do it all over again, and that was kind of the definition of insanity.”
Schwiethale began his career with the department 21 years ago. He spent his first day working downtown, where he said half of his calls were homeless related.
He went on to patrol for six to seven years before getting into community policing. That was when he joined coalitions focused on homelessness.
Schwiethale was trained by a Colorado police department that won an international award in community policing for the establishment of its homeless outreach team. He brought the idea back to Wichita and established Wichita’s H.O.T. in 2013. The team consists of four full-time officers who are responsible for all homeless-related 911 calls in Wichita.
Some homeless individuals appreciate the initiatives taken by H.O.T. but would like to see full decriminalization of homelessness in Wichita.
“Unfortunately, (the H.O.T. team is) doing some tremendous work, but at the same time, they are still affiliated with the police department, who has criminalized being homeless, so they still have to tell (homeless people) to move along,” said Richard Patterson, who serves on the Wichita Continuum of Care and has experienced being homeless.
Schwiethale said the team builds trust with homeless individuals by visiting them, handing out bags of food and hygiene kits and talking about housing programs.
Ellis, the homeless advocate who overcame her own challenges, said the last time she was homeless, it was the middle of winter and she had to put her two dogs at an emergency shelter at the Humane Society. The dogs were held there for two weeks while Ellis and her ex-boyfriend gathered enough money to get a motel room, but they did not have enough money to pay the motel pet fees. Ellis said H.O.T. paid the pet fees so that her dogs could stay in the motel room with them.
“Really, our focus is already proven: You can’t arrest your way out of homelessness,” Schwiethale said. “… So from a police department’s perspective, if your goal is to reduce those 911 calls, those high utilizers, those community complaints, it’s not arresting homeless. It’s actually getting them off the streets and getting them stabilized.”
He referred to a study conducted by the University of North Carolina at Charlotte that examined the success of the Housing First Charlotte-Mecklenburg Program. The study found that after housing, the number of participants arrested fell 59%. Housing First does not require sobriety, but the study found that after getting housing, the number of participants who used any type of drug fell by 37%.
Since its inception, The Wichita-Sedgwick County Housing First Program has seen an 84% reduction in individuals being arrested, a 52% reduction in individuals going to the emergency room and a 13% increase in Housing First participants seeking treatment, according to Sedgwick County.
“Our performance measure is not arresting tickets,” Schwiethale said. “In fact, I don’t believe I’ve been to the jail once this entire year so far. … Our goal (in) performance standards is how many homeless we can get off the streets into permanent housing.”
He said that since the program began, it has helped 100 or more homeless individuals a year become housed, totaling approximately 1,300 people.
“Well, to tell you guys the truth, (Schwiethale) has been a very special part of my life from being homeless,” said Wichita resident Fred Linker. “I was homeless for a little over 21 years, and this man has been like a brother to me. I got a lot of respect for him and what he does for the Wichita Police Department and community.”
Schwiethale said H.O.T. helped Linker find housing, and he is currently on advisory boards.
Giving a voice
The Alliance of Overlooked Neighbors is grappling with the challenges of the Wichita homeless population in a different way. The advocacy group works to give current or formerly homeless individuals a voice through positions on advisory and community boards.
Established this year, it is working toward two goals by 2024: Increase representation on community and advisory boards and provide education and awareness events.
In July, AON coordinated with 25 Wichita businesses to expand access to water for homeless individuals as a part of Hydration Awareness Month. AON compiled and distributed maps showing locations where water was offered for free to the public.
AON recently helped place an individual who has experienced homelessness in a homeless representation position on the Balance of State Continuum of Care.
Patterson, the advocate who is formerly homeless and serves on the Wichita Continuum of Care, helps AON make connections with homeless individuals. He hopes to give a voice to “overlooked neighbors.”
He dealt with undiagnosed drug addiction until he was 48 years old.
“Only with lots of help did I come out of that, and I’m now being an advocate for those who’ve been in the same shoes I was in,” Patterson said.
He said the amount of help needed to get him off the streets made him realize getting out of homelessness is “harder than it should be.” He hopes to work with AON to decriminalize being homeless.
“I’m a firm believer — and trying to get this addressed as well — that everyone with a mental illness does not have a drug addiction, but everyone with a drug addiction has a mental illness,” Patterson said.
He said because he went to jail and was put in mental health court, somebody from COMCARE, a mental health and substance abuse service provider in Sedgwick County, was sent to assess him. That is what “got the ball rolling,” he said.
“It was only by going completely off the deep end in addiction that brought me to be somewhere that I could actually be diagnosed,” Patterson said.
He said there are lots of resources available for the homeless community in Wichita, but it is difficult to figure out where they are.
Members of AON also have ideas about resources they would like to see available for the homeless.
Ellis, who is a member of AON, said it would be helpful if there were places for homeless individuals to charge their phones and parking lots where those with vehicles could legally park.
Rodney Hunter, Ellis’ fiance, is also an AON member. He said there is a lot of red tape when it comes to providing required self-identification documents when filling out an I-9 form. He only became aware of the different types of forms that can be used by talking with people in the community.
“I think a lot of people are aware, that are either currently or formerly unhoused, that there are resources that exist here in Wichita, but lots of times when you’re in the thick of it, and you’re in survival mode, it’s hard to know where you can go,” said Olivia Sailors, coordinator of AON.
On July 21, Wichita-Sedgwick County Continuum of Care planning manager Cole Schnieders announced that all agencies with Continuum of Care Projects — including United Way of the Plains, The Salvation Army, United Methodist Open Door, Catholic Charities Wichita, Breakthrough, Mental Health Association and Sedgwick County-COMCARE — need at least one person who has experienced being homeless to either serve as a member on their advisory boards or provide advice.
Schnieders asked AON to help fill the board openings.
While advocates, service providers and law enforcement agencies have all worked to solve homelessness in Wichita, much remains to be done.
Cruse, the county commissioner, would like to see an increase in the number and value of community based services.
To address the number of individuals who cycle in and out of incarceration because of substance abuse, Cruse suggested painting a sidewalk from the Sedgwick County Jail leading to the Substance Abuse Center of Kansas’ Crossover Recovery Center, a 0.3-mile walk.
Cruse pointed to a study conducted by Wichita State University, which looked at individuals who frequently use behavioral health services in Sedgwick County.
“While there is no universal definition of what constitutes a high utilizer, it is generally recognized that high utilizers get trapped in a cycle of emergency department, inpatient admission, crisis services, detox and sobering and back on the street without successfully managing their illnesses. Many of these patients are uninsured or underinsured, utilizing significant community resources, while still not fully engaged in treatment for their illnesses,” the study says.
The study looked at data for high utilizers between 2015 and 2018 for three mental health service providers in Sedgwick County: Ascension Via Christi, COMCARE of Sedgwick County and the Substance Abuse Center of Kansas.
The 516 patients studied received nearly $56 million in services from those three providers. One patient — the most costly in the study — received $765,211 in services from Ascension Via Christi alone.
Cruse said the amount of public dollars that goes toward funding these services while people cycle in and out is “insane.”
Plans fell through for a mental health and substance abuse campus in Wichita via a $15 million COMCARE expansion, Cruse said, although COMCARE’s services will be broadened in other ways.
She would like to see jail employees work with those who are incarcerated upon their release.
“Make sure they have a medication appointment, make sure they have a recovery of some kind, whether it’s AA class or something, a mental health appointment,” Cruse said. “And then they need to make sure if it’s one of these three things, or all, that they have transportation to get there, and then they have a follow up once that happens.”
Ellis is taking Wichita’s homelessness issues into her own hands.
As she settles into her new apartment, which she was able to afford through a workman’s compensation claim settlement, and searches for a job, she is going through peer support, Youth Mental Health First aid and Adult Mental Health First Aid training.
Ellis is also keeping up with AON and working toward establishing her own group, Hygiene for the Homeless. Although, she said she is brainstorming a new name because she wants to incorporate more resources.
Ellis said informing the Wichita community about homelessness is a big step the city can take to address the issue.
“Our community has no clue what to do with the homeless,” Ellis said. “Our own government doesn’t want to admit we have a problem here. Yes, they know, but they don’t like admitting it.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the availability of funding from COMCARE. The funding remains available for mental health and substance abuse services, but plans for a specific expansion fell through.
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