Charity Johnston waits outside of United Methodist Open Door, 402 E. 2nd St., on Tuesday afternoon. It serves as a resource center for those without permanent homes by providing hot showers, a laundry service and a place to rest or eat. (Fernando Salazar/The Wichita Beacon)
Charity Johnston waits outside of United Methodist Open Door, 402 E. 2nd St., on Tuesday afternoon. It serves as a resource center for those without permanent homes by providing hot showers, a laundry service and a place to rest or eat. (Fernando Salazar/The Wichita Beacon)

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Donnie has a roof over his head. He’s still homeless. 

His left hand was nearly severed during an accident. Now, when Donnie lifts his hand and rotates his wrist, one can follow the length of a thick, white scar.

“I’m limited in working,” said Donnie, who requested to be identified by his first name only. “This is my dominant hand. I got like 30% movement in it. My fingertips don’t bend.” 

Donnie, 48, spoke from a private space inside the United Methodist Open Door, Wichita’s current one-stop resource and referral center serving people without permanent homes. 

He resides in a sober-living house for the moment — but it’s a Band-Aid solution. Homelessness is a continuum of issues, trapping someone in a cycle where short-term ideas don’t solve the problem.

People wait outside of United Methodist Open Door on Tuesday afternoon. (Fernando Salazar/The Wichita Beacon)

Open Door offers guidance in finding housing and work as well as providing laundry services, warm showers and a safe space to stow belongings. 

Deann Smith, executive director of United Methodist Open Door, highlighted current operations as a success of Wichita’s 2006 Taskforce to End Chronic Homelessness.

She said opening a one-stop center was the first strategy recognized by the city as a priority. “From that side, it really has worked well,” she said.

Multiple approaches to supporting homeless people in Wichita

Several additional strategies were designated for the community: establishing permanent supportive housing, emergency housing options and sustainable funding sources, and maintaining an oversight committee to track overall progress.  

The task force has successfully implemented programs in support of its goals. For example, Sedgwick County’s Housing First program places people into homes as an alternative to emergency shelter or transitional housing, which may prolong how long an individual remains homeless. 

Data from the National Alliance to End Homelessness shows that while it continues to be an issue, the state is making progress: 

  • 2,216 Kansans experienced homelessness in 2018, a 20% decrease since 2014. 
     
  • In Wichita and Sedgwick County, there were 573 homeless people on a given night in 2018, the most recent data available, measuring 11.2 homeless people per 10,000 people — higher than the state average of eight. 

Tim Kaufman, deputy county manager for the Division of Public Services, said he believes the task force took the right approach in addressing the problems.

“There are a number of different opinions on how to best address the issue,” he said. “It was good to get a number of different partners involved in conversations … then turn to both the city, county and nonprofit sector to implement solutions.” 

A common thread was recognized by all involved: the lack of mental health care and substance abuse programs. 

We can get some of these folks housed, and have, but there’s a cycle because they’re so sick and can’t get enough care and longer-term treatment.

Deann Smith, executive director of United Methodist Open Door

Donnie said he’s met many people on the street and within Open Door who struggle with schizophrenia. He also spoke at length about the presence of substance abuse on the street. 

“People soak the sorrows of their life to drugs. They think it’s a suppressant,” Donnie said. “They have no one to talk to. These drugs destroy people.” 

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development uses volunteers to count people in shelters or on the streets one night a year — often resulting in an undercounted population. Seventeen out of every 10,000 people in the U.S. were experiencing homelessness on a single night in January 2019 during HUD’s annual Point-in-Time count.

While Wichita’s homeless numbers seem to have slightly increased, Smith said COVID-19 has skewed 2020 numbers. “It’s not comparing apples to apples,” she said. “We’re small enough that … if you’ve got five people up or down, the percentage fluctuates dramatically.”

Funding falls behind for Wichita homeless

Smith said the oversight committee created as part of the task force stopped meeting a few years after its formation, after the one-stop center opened and the county’s Housing First program became active. 

“They realized it was not the time and place to figure out how to figure out ongoing funding in light of the economy,” she said. 

That lack of funding continues to weigh heavily on the shoulders of officials, service centers and shelters alike.

The 2006 plan estimated $2.8 million to $4.2 million was necessary just to implement desired strategies. An additional million dollars a year would support ongoing operations. 

“We’re not different than anybody else,” Smith said. “In terms of solutions … it depends on federal, state, local and private dollars.” 

Managing individuals with minimal barriers to stable housing is doable for nonprofits like Open Doors, Smith added. Fulfilling communitywide goals in eliminating chronic homelessness or funneling money into mental health programs are ambitious dreams. 

“Sustainable funding is going to be a challenge,” Kaufman said. 

Donnie also doesn’t know where his next dollar is coming from. His current shelter is temporary. 

Carpal tunnel has crept into his right wrist, forcing both hands out of commission. He can’t work.

“I just keep praying.”

 

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Lugli is a community watchdog reporter at The Wichita Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.