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When you see people sleeping on the streets downtown or living in a tent under a bridge, it’s common to wonder: Why doesn’t somebody do something? It’s asked by those concerned for the human welfare of Wichita homeless people and others who don’t like their public presence.
It’s the most common question Cole Schnieders hears. Schnieders works at the United Way of the Plains as the planning manager of the Continuum of Care, a program funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In this role, he coordinates Wichita organizations that are doing something through their work in housing and homeless services.
The United Way’s 211 assistance referral website lists 73 organizations in Sedgwick County providing help for people seeking shelter and housing. These organizations, which rely on a combination of tax dollars, private donations and volunteers, provide a variety of help to all populations, Schnieders said.
And the easiest way to access this help is to call 211, he said. You can also text 898-211, go online or chat with a 211 operator who will ask questions about your situation and assist with referrals to the right organizations.
Who can get help with housing and homeless shelters?
Here’s a list of the types of help available, the people served and the problems addressed. Please note not all available services are linked. Call 211 for access to the full sources of help.
- Shelters for people with and without disabilities, single men, families with children, senior citizens, women fleeing domestic violence, teen runaways or young adults aging out of foster care, youth fleeing sexual exploitation and veterans. “We can get somebody into a shelter within 24-48 hours,” Schnieders said.
- Long-term housing for all these same people through government vouchers or nonprofit housing. Schnieders listed off four programs that provide more than 1,400 rental vouchers. Calling 211 is the first step to getting access to these. Accessing this housing takes at least 15 days but often longer, he cautioned. One cause of delay is finding landlords who accept the vouchers.
- Help for the housing insecure – people at risk of becoming homeless. This includes things like help paying rent and mortgage and utilities, help with tenants’ rights, home repair and help addressing code enforcement violations.
What other help is available to people at risk of becoming homeless?
- Because economic difficulty is the driving cause of homelessness, help is also available for credit counseling, finding a job, getting clothes for a job interview, training for new job skills, emergency day care, life skills classes and getting transportation to and from a job.
- There’s also help available for prescription drugs, vision care and notary services. There’s even help available for pets, including emergency boarding, pet food and vet care.
- And food? Wichita has vast resources for feeding the hungry. The Lord’s Diner – supported by 6,000 volunteers – feeds anyone, no questions asked, 365 nights a year at two brick-and-mortar locations and three food trucks around Wichita. There are dozens of other places offering meals and food from pantries. The Kansas Food Bank maintains a location map online. When people are faced with hard choices about which bills to pay, “I tell people the first thing you should stop paying in Wichita is your food bill,” Schnieders said.
What can Wichita do to improve homeless services?
According to Schnieders, helping one person or family into housing may require the involvement of four to six organizations. The United Way, other nonprofits and government agencies can provide caseworkers to help stressed people navigate it all.
“Our goal is for homelessness to be rare, brief and nonrecurring,” he said.
So how does Wichita do at meeting that goal? Schnieders, who maintains data required by HUD federal grants, says that compared to cities of similar size (like Des Moines, Iowa, or Boise, Idaho) Wichita is middle of the road. “Clearly we can do better,” he said.
Areas of improvement are coordination between agencies, more staff to provide case management assistance, and more money to provide more housing.
The Wichita City Council recently voted to put $5.5 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds toward constructing a one-stop service center for the homeless and housing insecure. The plan requires HUD approval. Opinions on the concept are divided among service providers, and the United Way takes a neutral stand.
“I would like to get to ‘functional zero,’ where we have fewer people entering the system than the resources available to help them,” Schnieders said.
What about help for mental health and substance abuse? During the last “point-in-time” official count of the homeless, 24% of the 690 people identified reported a serious mental illness or substance use disorder that impacts their daily lives. (United Way’s website lists 102 agencies in Sedgwick County assisting people with mental health and addiction.)
While both are problems for the chronically homeless – Wichita recorded 100 of those at its last count – economic difficulty is the chief driver of homelessness and housing insecurity.
So if all this help is available, how do we explain the people still sleeping on streets and living under bridges?
Richard and Denise Dodd, camped in Sim Park along the Arkansas River, said they do not trust the agencies trying to help. “Not everyone on the streets is crazy or a drug addict,” Richard Dodd said. “I can’t afford rent and I would rather be here than in the shelter.”
Shelters are not for everyone, but most people would choose to live in their own indoor space in an apartment or house – if they can be persuaded they are worthy of it, Schnieders believes. “We call it a human dignity issue,” Schnieders said. A real challenge is persuading people to feel comfortable accepting help. “My goal is to get people out of the streets and transform their lives.”
An annual “point-in-time” count is taken of Wichita’s homeless population each year. The next one will be Jan. 26, 2023. More than 100 volunteers are needed for the effort. Sign up here.
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