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Last February, a historic cold snap shocked Wichita, plunging temperatures below zero and forcing people inside — including those without homes. As winter again tugs temperatures down and whips wind gusts up, advocates and nonprofits serving the unsheltered are working to protect them.
In the shadow of St. John’s Episcopal Church on Topeka Street in downtown Wichita, volunteers last year flipped an empty lot into a safe haven for unsheltered people to receive necessities without obstacle.
April Holt, a volunteer affectionately nicknamed “Mother Teresa” by others, parks her white van at the church’s lot on the corner of Third and Topeka every Thursday night. She spends hours doling out snacks, flashlights and toiletries — as well as tough love to encourage people to a shelter’s doorstep.
Holt spent last winter driving her van around Wichita looking for unsheltered people in need.
“I spent more time in the evening after The Lord’s Diner closed because everybody would go to the overflow,” Holt said, referring to an emergency shelter opened during the winter. The Lord’s Diner on North Broadway provides free meals to unsheltered people via food truck or a brick-and-mortar store.
“I’d be going behind folks, honking my horn like, ‘Get up there now! Go, go go!’,” she said, laughing. “I’d give several of them rides and drop them off at the shelter.”
Timothy, who asked that his last name not be used, is currently housed at Union Rescue Mission on North Hillside Street. He said winter holds unique challenges for an unsheltered person.
“You have to find some way to get out of the cold, you pretty much practice how to look for shelter,” Timothy said. “I’ve had to sleep in an abandoned house before. It’s nothing nice, it’s scary, and you’re thinking to yourself ‘what am I doing, I need to get my life together.’”
HumanKind Ministries opens two emergency winter shelters from November through March — one designated for men and the other for women. They operate as no-barrier facilities, meaning any individual who shows up will find a bed to sleep on.
Both the women’s and men’s emergency shelters are at the corner of East Eighth and North Market streets.
“They can be under the influence, have health issues, have a criminal background — our doors are open to everybody,” said LaTasha St. Arnault, president and CEO of HumanKind.
Wichita’s emergency winter work
Sedgwick County and the city of Wichita provided $125,000 each to HumanKind to support its winter overflow shelters. The city’s funding came from the federal Emergency Solutions Grant.
St. Arnault said the winter overflow shelters came after the dissolution of a citywide partnership that left the organization with unallocated funding. They used that funding to start the overflow shelters.
“These were all really hard decisions about the urgency of care and saving lives in the wintertime — life-saving resource versus the long-time support services,” St. Arnault said.
Doug Nolte, CEO of Union Rescue Mission, said a wintertime priority is getting people off the streets and into a safe, warm place. The organization runs an emergency overnight shelter for men.
“We don’t care why you’re coming here, you can just come here,” Nolte said. “If someone shows up at our door, we want them to get to a safe place.”
Timothy, unsheltered for about 10 months, said he refers to Union Rescue Mission as “three hots and a cot.”
“You can take a break from your life outside there, from homelessness, and get your real life back together,” he said. He also participates in the Mission’s Solid Ground, a rehabilitation program.
Winter shelters operate similarly to year-round ones, such as separating populations by gender over security concerns, according to Nolte and St. Arnault. However, any person who shows up for help will receive it.
“Because we’re a men’s shelter, we’ve got to be careful. We’re gonna want to know if someone’s transgender. We will not reject them,” Nolte said. “They need to understand the environment they’re coming into may not be a long-term solution, but we will get them somewhere.”
Timothy said shelters and charitable services are a safe haven and place of hope for those ready to break the “vicious cycle” of homelessness.
“(Some people) are defeated. They do whatever on the street and depend on the mission for meals and clothes,” he said. “To lose it all … is a really big deal.”
Nolte said some unsheltered people refuse shelter citing safety concerns, irregular operating hours or discomfort at sharing such close quarters with strangers.
Holt said mistrust may be the obstacle to accepting available services.
When COVID-19 hit Wichita, Holt said, many services shut their doors during lockdown, including United Methodist Open Door, a resources center for the unsheltered.
“There wasn’t really anybody out here at all. They told everybody to stay home, but what about the homeless?”
Since the lockdown, Holt’s established herself as a kind, reliable presence for unsheltered people. This consistency strengthens her relationship with those on the streets.
“I connect with them. I’m hard on them, I give a lot of tough love. Most of these guys feel like my kids, so I don’t sugarcoat nothing,” she said.
Mandy Griffin — office manager and clinical care coordinator for ICT Street Team, a free, mobile clinic for unsheltered people — said the volunteer-run organization has people who are hesitant to return inside after a bad experience.
“For those that just will not go to the shelter, we just try to provide whatever we can,” Griffin said. If donated sleeping bags or tents are available, they’ll be handed out to those in need.
“We want to make sure everyone stays safe and alive,” Griffin said
Provisions beyond a warm place to sleep
Griffin’s work for ICT Street Team bridges health care gaps between unsheltered people and medical facilities. Its entirely volunteer-run services include nurses and physicians who roll up in a mobile clinic to provide prescriptions and treat ailments.
ICT Street Team joins Holt and God N’ Dogs on Thursday nights in front of St. John’s Episcopal. The city of Wichita and service providers continue to struggle to address people without shelter downtown.
“We come out here, consistently, every week,” she said. “They know that we’re gonna be here. It doesn’t matter if it’s raining or snowing or if it’s super cold or super hot.”
Timothy said that dependability is invaluable to someone experiencing homelessness.
“I had no idea they had so many resources for homeless people, including medical ones,” he said. “This Union Rescue Mission saved my life.”
Last winter, a person with a severe case of frostbite showed up too late for emergency medical attention. Griffin said the team often references the case as a sign of caution during the winter.
“Cold weather is rough, especially when you’re out on the streets,” Griffin said. “Our focus, along with medical care, is to have somebody set up every weeking passing out additional items: hats, gloves, hand warmers and socks.”
Griffin did not recall any known deaths or injuries related to hypothermia among the roughly 300 patients the Street Team currently serves. Data from the Regional Forensic Science Center shows 24 people have died from hypothermia in the past five years.
At that corner of Third and Topeka, volunteers and unsheltered people spend every Thursday night together. The compassion and gratitude are evident.
On a recent outreach effort, a woman walked up to Holt in her van. “Hey Erica,” Holt said, smiling. “How are you doing? What happened?”
On the other side of the lot, ICT Street Team nurses were taking the blood pressure of people, providing COVID tests and examining cuts and bruises.
“We get lots of thank-yous, hugs, lots and lots of ‘I love yous’ and ‘God bless,’” Griffin said. “Our team will be here, and they know that.”