A man sits in a parking lot.
Ron Wiggens has been homeless for two years. Here he waits for the bus after visiting Open Door. (Trace Salzbrenner/The Beacon)

Update: The full list of names of Wichita homeless deaths reported in 2022 to the Advocates to End Chronic Homelessness has been added to this story. The full memorial they hosted can be watched on Facebook. The number of unhoused deaths has also increased between the publication of the story and the end of the year, so the titles now reflects the new number. In those 16 days, during a cold snap that saw subzero temps and windchills up to -30, 3 more deaths were reported.

The number of homeless deaths reported in 2022 in Wichita was more than double than it was in previous years.  

“I don’t know if it’s because the channels of communication got better so I hear more deaths or if it’s because it really is worse,” said Kathy Bowles, a nurse who volunteers with local shelters and keeps the list of unhoused who have passed.

Since 2006, Advocates to End Chronic Homelessness (AECH) has organized a memorial service to ensure that people who die while unhoused are not forgotten. Usually there are about 20 to remember. This year the count is at least 49. Just under two months ago, the count was only 31.

They will each be remembered at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 21, at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, at the annual Advocates to End Chronic Homelessness Memorial. 

What caused the rise in deaths among Wichita homeless? 

This year, unhoused people in Wichita have died from murder, car accidents, overdose and exposure to the elements. 

Recently, three people died of fentanyl-aided overdose while living in a homeless encampment in Wichita. Those people were 31-year-old Cody Maxey, 20-year-old Stevie Metts and 35-year-old Brandon Randall. Bowles was close with two of them. 

“These were people with families and friends,” Bowles said. “It’s been a rough few months…”

Ron Wiggens is a homeless veteran in Wichita. He has been bouncing back and forth between shelters after his camp was raided and torn down. 

“The fentanyl has been a huge issue. Meth and fentanyl is what I keep seeing,” Wiggens said while sitting outside Open Door, a resource center for the unhoused. “Just a few days ago a couple of people at the shelter I was at had to be wheeled into an ambulance because they had accidentally taken fentanyl.” 

Is fentanyl the main cause of deaths for Wichita homeless?

“The police department would have you believe that it was mostly drug-related,” Bowles said. “Not that people want to admit it, but a huge problem is exposure to the elements.” 

Bowles points to three deaths from cold-weather exposure early this year, in addition to the five unhoused people who died in February. 

“The [death] this week has ‘health issues’ [listed as the cause of death] …  I’ve been an RN for 24 years. ‘Presumed’ cause of deaths are against my instincts. The pandemic made things worse than they were, but costs and staffing have likely been the driving forces behind this issue,” said Bowles.

The county coroner’s office states that when a person is sent to them for a medical examination, they attribute death to what caused the most prevalent harm they can see, whether that be an overdose, hypothermia or other causes. If the person who passed had a regular doctor, that doctor can also rule a cause of death in place of the coroner’s office.

Denise Dodd, an unhoused woman living next to the river in Sim Park with her husband, Richard Dodd, recalled a recent death of a friend who was also homeless. 

“I don’t know if it was late last year or early this one but one of my friends froze to death,” Denise said. “We don’t know why. She had places she knew she could go but she sat down behind a Dollar General and just froze.” 

Bowles states that fentanyl, while not the only reason for deaths, is still a huge problem that Wichita and other communities need to deal with. 

Who were the people who died?  

Blake Barnes was beaten by two men while living without housing in Wichita near The Keeper of the Plains. He was, according to his obituary, an “active and very talented young man.” Barnes was a musician who learned to play the guitar from his dad and furthered his love of music by learning to sing and play other instruments. He loved to work out and made a living as an arborist. He had two daughters. 

“Excellence is the best ink with which to make your mark in this world,” was a quote he kept on his guitar amp. 

David Coleman was found dead outside The Lord’s Diner, a place in Wichita that serves free food. He left behind four children, his parents and his dog Geppeto.

Others who went unnamed in the news include five who died in February from a cold snap. One unhoused person died in a fire that burned down buildings used as encampments. Bowles knows of at least three people who died in hit-and-run accidents. Many more stories went untold. 

What can be done to help?

Bowles advocates for harm reduction to help reduce overdose deaths and encourages people to volunteer with one of the many organizations in Wichita currently providing help

People facing homelessness often encounter barriers to services, and that’s something Wiggens wants to see fixed.

Wiggens has tried to receive help from Veterans Affairs but has found little success. Documents got lost due to internet connectivity limitations, long lists of requirements were discouraging, and he would often be left without answers for days at a time.

Unhoused deaths, like the 49 who will be remembered at the memorial, happen when people fall through the cracks of these requirements or get discouraged by the system, explained Denise Dodd.

Wiggens also warned of the slow bus system in Wichita that can leave people sitting out in the cold for hours at a time. 

“The other day I needed to get back to [the shelter] for the night. I missed the bus by a couple of minutes and had to wait for around four hours to get back,” Wiggens said.

The memorial for people who died while unhoused

Bowles, who helps organize the memorial, hopes it can remind people that those being remembered were people, too. There will be an in-person service as well as a live stream over Facebook. 

“These were people’s brother, sister, son, daughter. The person I am giving a eulogy for, he had three kids. These were human beings,” Bowles said.

The memorial provides a list of names. First names are used by AECH to provide some privacy to the families. In other instances first names or nicknames are used because no family of the deceased was found.

The names of those remembered:

Bol Bol

Michael O.

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Trace Salzbrenner is a community journalist for The Wichita Beacon. Follow him on Twitter @RealTraceAlan.