Dion Scavina takes a moment Tuesday while describing the suffering the recent historic heat wave caused him and other homeless tent campers in north Topeka. The heat index at the time this photo was taken was 111 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the National Weather Service. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)
Look and see.
With faces burnished by the record-breaking summer heat, they squint at the bright afternoon world with weary eyes. Their eyes burn when they talk about the troubles that brought them here to this street in north Topeka, to lie in sun-faded tents below Interstate 70 or to sit on the curb waiting for the worst of the record heat to pass.
Their stories are about marriages that splintered, careers that were almost successful, scrapes with the law that ranged from trivial to violent. Sometimes a car broke down and there was no money for repairs. For others, it was a sick mother or other family emergency that preceded financial disaster. More than a few struggled with, or surrendered to, alcohol or drug addiction. And some — those with obvious mental health problems — couldn’t explain exactly what led them to this dead-end street north of the Kaw River, or why they preferred living rough instead of taking comfort in the rescue mission just down the block.
‘A war on the homeless’
On Tuesday, I walked the neighborhood around the Topeka Rescue Mission on Kansas Avenue and near the NOTO arts district, talking to some of the dozens of unsheltered individuals in the area. They are among the 412 homeless people in the city, a number determined by an annual homeless count conducted in January.
In the count, about 60% were male, and 72% were white and 18% black. Nearly half spent their nights in emergency shelters and 15% in transitional housing. But a considerable fraction, almost four in 10, were counted as unsheltered — those sleeping in tents, benches, doorways.
My goal in walking the neighborhood was to hear directly from the unsheltered.
I asked permission to take their photographs and use their names. Although some were suspicious or camera-shy, many were generous with their time and their insight. Nearly all of them said they worked, mostly at low-paying temp jobs, and they were afraid — primarily of the police and other authorities — of being assaulted by other homeless individuals, and of the heat.
Keith “Pretty Boy” Sims had been living unsheltered for some time but only recently came to Topeka. Now 56, Sims was a professional boxer a couple of decades ago but fell on hard times after a difficult divorce. Born in Cleveland, Missouri, he began his fighting career in Kansas City and was soon boxing across the country, becoming known for the signature bowtie he wore when stepping into the ring. In 2002 he fought for the super middleweight title at the Stardust Casino in Las Vegas, but he lost the bout by TKO.
Sims, who was shirtless and barefoot when I met him, sat on the curb a few yards from the Topeka Rescue Mission, a Christian social service ministry. The mission had contributions and grants of $7 million in 2021, according to the most recent federal tax return available on GuideStar.
Sims said he wasn’t in the shelter because he didn’t like the rules. A few nights before, he said, he was jumped by a couple of what he called “bridge bums” — individuals living in tents beneath the nearby Interstate 70 overpass — and was forced to defend himself. Sims was booked Aug. 11 by police on a charge of aggravated battery.
Sims said he came to Topeka hoping for work and found some luck as a day laborer with a temp agency. He sometimes worked construction and other times was sent to work the line at the dog food plant. But on Tuesday, he overslept in somebody else’s tent and missed the 5:40 a.m. metro bus that would take him to the job. He shook his head.
“You just can’t do anything without money,” he said.
Not so long ago, Sims said, he lived in a nice house. But now he understood what it was like to be down and out.
“There’s a war against the homeless,” he said.
When asked what he would tell city officials if he had the chance, his reply was quick: “Put yourself in our spot for a minute and see how it feels.”
‘I don’t know what the solutions is’
Those homeless individuals who remain on the streets pose a moral challenge for Topeka and nearly every other city in Kansas. How do you help the most desperate among us without leaving them to the county jail or otherwise imposing conditions that would rob them of their autonomy, if not their dignity?
The recent heat wave topped out on Monday with a record-breaking heat index of 126 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the National Weather Service, creating a crisis in Topeka for which the community seemed unprepared. This, despite the homeless problem generating more public discussion, proposed initiatives and hair-pulling than just about anything else.
Last year, the city bulldozed a tent city in north Topeka, declaring it a threat to the public health and safety. A former manager brought several agencies together and sought to add $1 million to the city budget for homeless aid, among other initiatives, but those plans are now uncertain. Recently, over concerns that homeless camps along city nature trails create a hazard for bicyclists and others — particularly women and children — the council considered a proposed ordinance that would ban camping on public property along the trails, according to the Topeka Capital-Journal.
The homeless issue is so controversial that some city officials were reluctant to speak to me on the record. Councilwoman Christina Valdivia-Alcala, whose district includes the Topeka Rescue Mission and the NOTO arts district, considered but then declined an interview. A message left Wednesday at the office of Mayor Mike Padilla was not returned.
Across the railroad tracks and a couple of blocks north from the rescue mission is the North Topeka Arts District. NOTO is the kind of area that attracts visitors with disposable income. There’s a public arts center, private art galleries, a book store and a craft brewing company. There’s also Phoenix Finds, a vintage furniture store owned by Melissa Miller.
“I’m compassionate for the people in the shelter, but it’s a terrible problem,” Miller told me. “Just this morning I had a shirtless drunk guy lying out on the bench in front of my place.”
Miller said NOTO business owners have a group chat in which they share information, especially when there appears to be a threat. Many of those who create trouble appear to be impaired or mentally ill, she said, while others are simply petty thieves. She once carried rock band T-shirts but had to stop because of shoplifting.
“I don’t know what the solution is,” she said.
‘Then help them’
A 59-year-old woman in a tent who identified herself as Suzanne DaMilo told me she lived in constant fear of being assaulted by drug addicts or having her possessions stolen by other unsheltered people. A young man, Jo-el Medlock II, waiting at a bus stop, said he had been on the streets since 2005 and didn’t worry about much because when he sang, the birds sang with him.
A 58-year-old man, Dion Svacina, had just returned from selling plasma and he reclined on an inflatable mattress while he talked. Svacina, who lived in a tent camp with two other individuals, said he worked as a roofer. In 2018, he and his brother, also a roofer, were credited in the Topeka Capital-Journal for warning a woman that her house was on fire while on a job.
When asked what advice he had for city officials, Svacina said: “If you’re trying to help somebody, then help them. Don’t just talk about it.”
During the two hours I was in the neighborhood, with the heat index at 118, I was surprised that I saw no officials or volunteers checking on the welfare of the unsheltered or handing out food and water. Curious, I contacted the Topeka Rescue Mission — which has a large neon cross with “Jesus Saves” on the roof — to ask if their staff or anyone else had provided help to the dozens of unsheltered in the neighborhood that day.
La Manda Broyles, the shelter’s executive director, said the mission had.
They had helped five individuals on Tuesday, she said in an email, by handing out 10 bottles of water and one baggie of ice. While I was there, there were dozens of unsheltered homeless in the area. Broyles said on Tuesdays, fewer things are provided in the neighborhood because their outreach staff and volunteers are rotated to other locations, including their children’s center at 601 NW Harrison, about half a mile away.
On Monday, when the heat index set a record, Broyles said the mission had given out 68 bottles of water, 34 baggies of ice and 23 packets of food. Approximately 200 individuals were in the shelters on those days, she said, a number consistent with previous seasons.
“We do see a standard increase in those accessing shelters in extreme weather conditions,” she wrote, “both cold and hot weather.”
In talking with Sims and the other unsheltered, I realized that the homeless problem is unlikely to be solved by policy alone. Bulldozing a tent city or banning public camping temporarily removes the problem from public view. But the unsheltered are resourceful by necessity and will find new places to camp or sleep rough. Passing laws excluding them from public areas are steps that, taken to their logical conclusion, would criminalize homelessness.
Like Miller, the shop owner, I don’t know the solution.
Any path forward should include more unsheltered individuals in the discussion. Their wants and needs are basic: work, safety, dignity. It’s difficult to look into their eyes and not be moved by their suffering and shared humanity.
But they deserve to be heard — and seen.
Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.
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