Denise and Richard Dodd sit by they're fire pit.
Denise and Richard Dodd have been homeless since late 2019. Now they live next to the Arkansas River in a camp full of spare supplies for other unhoused people in need. (Fernando Salazar/The Wichita Beacon)

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On the embankment of the Arkansas River, near Sim Park in Wichita, you can expect to see arching trees stretching over the water, coarse sand piling up from the riverbed and various waterfowl surviving through winter conditions.

You may also come across a tent made from tarps strapped to the limbs of those trees. Scattered around it in the sand are bicycles, a fire pit, a cooler and wire cages.

This is where Denise and Richard Dodd currently live. They are what some might call homeless, unhoused or displaced. But both say this spot is better than any homeless shelter in Wichita.

“I honestly just feel better out here,” Denise said on a chilly winter morning in December.

Efforts to prevent homelessness in Wichita involve dozens of nonprofit and government agencies, employing hundreds of people, spending millions of dollars. Hundreds of people are housed each year as a result, but unhoused people are still a regular sight on Wichita’s streets and parks because not every solution works for everyone. At the last official “point-in-time” count, Wichita recorded nearly 700 people as homeless – 100 of those experiencing chronic homelessness. 

We asked the Dodds how they came to live beside the river. This is their story.

Who are Denise and Richard Dodd?

Denise and Richard were both born and raised in Wichita. Richard is in his 60s, Denise in her 50s. Denise went to school in Maize and used to be a CNA. She was going to college to receive her LPN before she had a severe stroke. 

Richard was one of six kids in his family. He used to work in restaurants as a server – or wherever needed – and he drove a lumber truck and briefly lived in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. He’s an ordained minister. 

They have one daughter and two “grandbabies,” as Denise calls them, who live elsewhere. 

Both are religious and often find themselves helping other homeless people in Wichita. Their camp has spare bike and wheelchair parts to make repairs for anyone who needs them. They’ve handed out clothing, food and offered shelter to whoever they can. 

Richard even set up open wire cages with boards strapped to the sides to shelter any stray cat that might need shelter. 

How did they lose their housing? 

Richard and Denise lived together while caring for Richard’s elderly parents, but then Denise had her stroke. 

“She stumbled into the bathroom and her voice didn’t sound right. I immediately told her to get in the truck because we were going to the hospital,” Richard said. 

A short time after, Richard’s parents passed away. The emotional strain was too much for the younger Dodds. The stress of dealing with Denise’s medical treatment compounded with the stress of dealing with familial death, and they chose to separate for a while. 

Denise heard tell of land for sale in the Flint Hills. She has always dreamed of having a little farm in the country where she could connect better with nature. 

Richard found a new girlfriend and tried to carve out a new beginning. 

But that, too, didn’t last. The land that Denise wanted to buy turned out to be a scam. 

“I thought I was going to get a homestead with chickens but instead I got screwed,” Denise said. She ended up having to live with a friend for a while. 

Richard’s new girlfriend ended up passing away after five years of being together. Then in 2019, Denise and Richard reconnected and moved into an RV together. 

Denise and Richard Dodd camp in Sim Park near the Arkansas River. “Not everyone on the streets is crazy or a drug addict. I can’t afford rent and I would rather be here than a shelter,” Richard said. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

It’s a snowball effect

It was a short run in the RV. They would constantly have to battle the police on where they could and couldn’t park. Additionally, Denise couldn’t work.

“I still can’t work because of the right side [from the stroke]. I can’t stand for long and I can barely walk,” Denise said. 

On top of that, Denise says she has pancreatic cancer, diabetes and the MTHFR gene mutation that causes blood clots and heart defects. She says she has already beaten ovarian and cervical cancer. 

Richard worked as much as he could, but between medical treatments, RV repairs and paying for a storage unit, the couple’s budget was strained. 

Eventually, the RV wasn’t viable anymore for Denise and Richard. Both tried reaching out to services to help them but they would get stuck. 

The couple can’t locate their marriage licenses or IDs after portions of their things were stolen, so any help requiring paperwork is difficult. When they have been awarded vouchers for long-term rental housing, they couldn’t find apartments willing to accept them. (Advocates for the homeless say this is a chronic problem.) And most services they qualify for would only take in one of them, not both. 

“And that went on for months,” Denise said, sighing into her palm. “After you jump through so many hoops you get tired and just want to give up… it’s a snowball effect.”

Trouble getting help

Their situation was not due to lack of trying, they said. Denise and Richard were both in a homeless shelter for a time while trying to get Denise medical attention. However, they found many problems with that environment. 

“When you live there, they usually want you to work,” Richard said. “Since I had a license, I had to drive others around to appointments.”

He’s referring to shelters that require residents to put in time around the shelter to clean, cook or do other chores. The couple says this left little time for Richard to get another job to actually start making money. 

They worked with a few social workers over the past three years, trying to find them help, but nothing was able to stick. 

After they started camping, police frequently tried to run them off, though some attempted to help. Denise says most accuse them of using drugs.

“I do not use drugs,” Denise said. 

She claims that when the police would come to force them out of a location, it would mean they had to focus on finding safety first, and that doesn’t allow them to seek long-term help. 

Above all else, a major barrier for accessing services is transportation. 

“When all the places you have are downtown, that’s great for the people there. But, there are homeless all over in Wichita and a lot of times you have to wait like five hours on buses to get where you are going,” Denise said. 

Denise and Richard fear this problem will be exacerbated if a new proposed resource center for the unhoused is built. A plan to spend $5.5 million of unused COVID relief aid on centralized services for the homeless still requires approval by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

Why stay homeless in Wichita? 

Denise and Richard have slept in to escape the cold. Overnight the temps had fallen below freezing and their position near the river made warming up a slow process. 

(Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

Frozen dewdrops cling to the dried reeds near the riverbed. 

It doesn’t feel at all hospitable until you notice the fire pit next to their patchwork tent. A seat fashioned out of a milk crate and an old office chair sit next to a wheelchair, a pair of resting spots to warm yourself while you cook a meal. 

A glimpse into their tent shows warm blankets and comfortable places to rest on the soft sand. To block the winter wind, they’ve created a door out of a smaller tarp that can be latched and unlatched as needed. 

Some mornings Denise, a Native American, performs a cleansing ritual with the water of the river, something she learned in her youth as she traveled from powwow to powwow with her family. She remembers sleeping in a tipi during those times, and this life reminds her of it.

They feel connected here. 

“Some people say, ‘How can you be out here if you can’t walk?’ Because I feel better here. I don’t even need oxygen attached when I’m out here,” Denise said. “You stick me in a house and I start having breathing issues.” 

Despite the cold, despite the hardships, they say this is the best place they could be right now. 

As temperatures plummet to life-threatening lows, Wichita has shelter available for people in need, homeless or not. The first step is to call 211 or visit the United Way website to access help from more than 70 local organizations. 

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Trace Salzbrenner

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