Kansas advocates say city officials struggle to address the state's growing unhoused population. (Lily O'Shea Becker/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Mental health advocates are once again brainstorming ways to approach the Kansas Legislature about the state’s growing homelessness problem.
Kansas cities and local governments have struggled to find solutions to the problem.
While urban areas have higher unhoused populations — about 1,798 people are homeless on any given night in Kansas City, according to a Kansas City advocacy group — more rural areas have seen rising numbers over the past three years or so due to the COVID-19 pandemic and rising inflation, among other conditions forcing more residents onto the streets.
During a Tuesday meeting, Amy Campbell, lobbyist and coordinator for the Kansas Mental Health Coalition, said city officials in smaller areas were looking for ways to appropriately handle the situation.
“The fact is that even small towns are now starting to encounter the public nuisance issues associated with having people camp in their parks or along the highways or roads or in certain areas of their communities,” Campbell said.
“I think that most of our local governing bodies are caught a little bit off guard with this issue,” Campbell added. “They want to be responsive to their business owners and their homeowners about the potential public safety issues and concerns about their customers feeling comfortable coming to their businesses.”
Coalition members want to prevent policy like last year’s House Bill 2430 from coming up again. In the 2023 legislative session, lawmakers suggested the measure, which would make it illegal to use state or local government property for unauthorized sleeping, camping or long-term shelters.
After widespread backlash from Kansans who had dealt with homelessness and other concerned citizens, the bill was tabled. However, Campbell expects some form of legislation to pop up again in the upcoming session.
“There is no doubt that the pressure will continue for these issues to be addressed,” Campbell said.
Coalition board member Chad Childs emphasized the importance of staying away from policies that passed moral judgement on those living with homelessness.
“In some ways, it’s a sneaky moral kind of a judgment,” Childs said, describing rhetoric surrounding the debate. “Those folks that are without houses don’t deserve additional support, they’re just looking for a handout.”
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