A free email newsletter breaking down the issues that affect Wichitans the most.
Delivered every Tuesday and Thursday morning
The corner of Second and Topeka streets in downtown Wichita recently received an onslaught of attention regarding its unsheltered residents.
On Oct. 5, the city’s Public Works & Utilities department painted white lines around United Methodist Open Door, a social services organization, and nearby buildings to disperse encampments and respond to an increase in violence in the area that sometimes targeted unsheltered people.
Sgt. Dave Nienstedt, supervisor of the Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team (HOT), said the lines provide a visual marker to help clear a path on the sidewalks around the buildings.
“It’s always been this way, it just hasn’t been enforced until [this area] became a public safety concern,” Nienstedt said. “The intention is compliance, not punishment.”
He said the lines cordoned off a portion of the sidewalk to give “fair warning” to unsheltered residents about police enforcement of trespassing and loitering ordinances.
“If you’re going to put this mattress out here and lay across it — you’re trespassing,” Nienstedt said.
Painting the lines on the sidewalks as a visual approach was assessed by the city’s law department and approved by the city manager’s office. The initiative was in the planning stages for over a year, Nienstedt said.
City Attorney and Director of Law Jennifer Magana said HOT officers presented the idea to the city law and public works departments after area business owners repeatedly expressed concerns about safety and difficulty accessing their properties.
“The Homeless Outreach Team presented the painted lines idea to the City’s law and public works departments with the goal of creating a visual, educational approach to maintain accessibility to area businesses and ensure safe, passable rights of way for all residents,” Magana wrote in an email to The Beacon.
Deann Smith, executive director of United Methodist Open Door, said the city and Sedgwick County have asked the Mental Health & Substance Abuse Coalition to create short-term and long-term plans within 60 days addressing a crisis affecting the majority of unsheltered people.
“I just don’t want to stir the pot on the white lines any further,” she wrote in an email to The Beacon. “But the issue of homelessness and behavioral issues related to untreated mental health/substance use disorders is an on-going concern.”
Disturbances lead 911 calls in area
Over 700 calls for service have been dispatched since April in a 10-block area around Second and Topeka streets, including calls related to disturbances, assaults and welfare checks, according to Sedgwick County Emergency Communications.
A 911 call can be categorized as “violent” if it involves aggressive or threatening behavior, regardless of physical contact, according to Wichita Police.
Nienstedt said that “712 calls in a tight one-block area is a tremendous amount of volume.”
Smith said she told Nienstedt she feared for the staff’s safety as unsheltered people frequenting the area became targets of violence.
“We’re there to serve the homeless,” Smith said in an interview. “We want to advocate for the homeless, but we also cannot tolerate behavior that is not safe towards the homeless or with us.”
Both Nienstedt and Smith referenced specific cases of violence near Open Door: shattered windows, a drawn machete and a woman stabbed in the parking lot — twice.
Along with an increase in 911 calls involving disturbances and violence in the past year, HOT officers were inundated with emails and phone calls from local business owners and residents, Nienstedt said.
Since January 2020, police have received reports of three rapes, 11 robberies, 11 aggravated assaults and nine aggravated batteries in the 200 and 300 blocks of North Topeka Street, according to data provided to The Beacon.
The statistics are considered a “very high” volume of calls in an area that would be difficult to duplicate in other parts of Wichita, Nienstedt wrote in an email.
“Looking at (2021) June, July and August there are nine cases of robbery, aggravated assault, and aggravated battery — violent crimes that catches people’s attention,” Nienstedt said. “Along with people complaining of trash, debris, and unsanitary conditions.”
A review of 911 calls in Patrol South Beat 21, which covers Old Town, showed a peak in disturbance-related calls in early summer.
Dispersing behavior, not the crowd
Jason Platter, an advocate for unsheltered people, has volunteered for homelessness services for over 10 years.
“I’ve never had problems with people down here,” Platter said, referring to downtown. “There’s a few businesses that don’t like them. Some of the city’s approach is trying to push the homeless away from downtown because they feel it’s an eyesore.”
Platter acknowledged the uptick in violence in the neighborhood but said the painted boundaries were a big step backward in addressing safety for residents — including those who are unsheltered.
“All of a sudden you’re splitting hairs,” he said. “Granted, [police and businesses] don’t want trespassing this and that, but also you’ve got people laid up against a building in the middle of winter because it’s a breakup of the elements. It’s a basic human need to seek shelter.”
A statement from Open Door in early October said that some of the violence was targeting unsheltered people and that the organization was “deeply concerned for the safety of our homeless friends.”
“All homeless individuals deserve to be in a safe environment and treated with respect and dignity,” the statement said. It also stated that “robberies, selling drugs and violence against the homeless is not tolerated.”
Here is a copy of a flyer the Homeless Outreach Team handed out after the Wichita Public Works & Utilities Department painted the lines outside Open Door. Strict enforcement of ordinances prohibiting trespassing or loitering began Oct. 13.
In a District 6 advisory board meeting in early October, police announced the plan to paint the white lines.
Wichita City Council member Cindy Claycomb — who represents District 6, which includes the area where the lines were painted — said the decision was made to strengthen public safety for unsheltered people and other residents, citing the increase in crime and disturbances.
“It’s not a solution to homelessness and I don’t think anybody thought that,” she said.
Claycomb said she was aware police were planning an initiative to address safety concerns in the neighborhood but did not receive notice about the white lines prior to the advisory board meeting.
Since the lines were painted Oct. 5, there have been no arrests or citations for trespassing along the 300 block of North Topeka Street, Nienstedt said.
A city ordinance bans overnight camping and setting up a temporary place to live on public property, citing it as “unlawful and a public nuisance.”
Nienstedt said that if a person is banned from a shelter or there is no space available, the individual is not in violation under the language of the ordinance — and therefore, police can’t enforce it.
HOT officers have not made any arrests for violation of the camping ordinance since its inception eight years ago, according to crime data reviewed by The Beacon.
However, on Oct. 5, five people were arrested for trespassing at Union Rescue Mission at 300 North Topeka Street. On Oct. 23, one person was charged with property damage and battery after an incident at Shirkmere Apartments in North Topeka.
“One of the biggest problems Wichita has is that it has now become known as a hub for the homeless,” Platter said. “We give a lot of handouts — we also need to give a hand up.”
‘Not about criminalizing homelessness’
In 2020, Nienstedt and HOT officers circled the block around Open Door to have property owners sign a trespassing affidavit, a form authorizing Wichita police to order an “unauthorized person” to leave the premises. If the person refuses, they can be charged with trespassing.
Open Door was one of 11 organizations and businesses to sign the affidavit — including Big Brothers, Big Sisters, Shirkmere Apartments, AT&T, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Union Rescue Mission and Western Imaging.
In the few weeks since the painted lines have encircled Open Door, Smith said, the encampments have dispersed, and staff safety concerns have eased.
“That’s what we’re trying to do — it’s not about criminalizing homelessness,” Nienstedt said. “I can’t speak for anywhere else, only for this jurisdiction, but nobody’s been arrested for being homeless.”
Platter said the people previously congregated in the area likely scattered across the city.
“In a way, this is bad because [downtown] is where we have services set up to help as many people as possible in one area. Now, you’re having to go all over to try and find them.”