Wichita homeless advocate April Holt
April Holt spends her days rolling through downtown Wichita to help unhoused people. She gives food, clothes and other necessities out of her van, a vehicle she fondly named Bob. (Stefania Lugli/The Beacon)

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As Wichita nears the end of winter, many people are past thinking about cold air and bitter wind. For April Holt,  it’s all she thinks about — stressing about those without homes to take cover in. 

Holt has amassed an online following in Wichita with her social media posts about the people she meets on the streets and her requests for help. The requests can range from asking for size 13 men’s shoes — larger sizes are hard to come by, she says — or phoning motel rooms for availability. 

Her Facebook page, Crazy Sack Lady, has over 3,000 likes. She’s also one of the administrators for Wichita Homeless Initiative, a labor of love and Facebook group with over 3,000 members. She collects supplies, in part, through donations — an online wish list of supplies and direct contributions. 

Holt is one of many volunteers who spend their time providing resources to the unsheltered as the city sometimes struggles with its response and a stagnating, years-old plan to end homelessness.

The Wichita Beacon asked Holt about her compassion for the unhoused and what she sees on the street every day. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

April Holt often parks her van on a lot at the corner of Third and Topeka streets to serve unhoused people. (Stefania Lugli/The Beacon)

Have you experienced homelessness? What is it about the homeless community that demands your attention? 

Yes, I have been homeless. If it weren’t for my auntie hunting me down and not taking no for an answer — nursing me back to health physically and mentally — who knows what would have happened (to me)? What drives me at this point is knowing I’m needed for that person walking with no shoes or socks when it’s cold, no coat, hungry, thirsty or needing words of encouragement or tough love. Mostly with our mentally ill, I try to check on them and make sure I can do the things I can make sure they have: warm clothes, encouragement …. a smile, a hug. Some wouldn’t even talk to me at first. It’s the little things, the breakthroughs that really excite me and show me I am making a difference. 

What’s taxing about your work? 

I stay mentally drained. It’s hard seeing some of the things I see and the things I can’t fix or do anything about. People suffer because of a broken system. There’s only one of me and I can’t be out there more. 

Who are the people that have left the biggest imprint on you? Why? What are their stories? 

Everyone has a story to tell. I try to be their voice. 

There used to be a lady I’d chase up and down Broadway. She’d holler and scream at people. People would stop to record her and swear that she was on drugs. She was a frequent flyer at the hospital and jail — it was from mental illness. She had been beat up and raped multiple times. I never gave up on her. 

I gave her water to wash her hair in the middle of a parking lot. I got her pretty dresses to wear. She loved to dress nice. I know miracles happen. I’ve seen it over and over again. Not maybe when I want them. But they do. 

Mental health is a repeated point of discussion when addressing homelessness. How do you help someone struggling with mental health issues? How do you help someone who rejects outreach efforts?

I try to build trust. I help them with their basic needs and try to encourage resources. Some are not even capable of really asking for help. I just figure out ways to communicate with them and try to make sure they ate and have appropriate clothes for the weather. 

I do whatever I can. I’ve paid one of my guys to get others into overflow (shelters) so they don’t freeze to death. There’s also been times I’ve had other homeless people help out other ones that wouldn’t talk to me — get them into a coat or pair of shoes.

What’s lacking in city or county-provided services and funding?

A crisis team that’s available 24/7. Mental health is one of the biggest issues on the street. All this (public) money is going to something, but sometimes it’s not necessarily put in the right areas. Sometimes I feel like the ones out here, doing this voluntarily, get more things done than the people actually earning money for supposedly doing something. Not that I want recognition for anything I do. I’d rather people not even know who I am.

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