Buttons and surveys used by United Way of the Plains in the annual homeless count.
Once a year the United Way of the Plains coordinates an annual “point-in-time” census of Wichita’s homeless population. The 2023 count saw an increase. (Courtesy image/United Way of the Plains)

Before you can solve a problem, you must measure it. If you want to do something to help Wichita’s homeless population, you can volunteer to help count on Jan. 26. More than 100 volunteers are needed for the United Way’s annual “point-in-time” count of unhoused Wichita residents.

The number of people unhoused ebbs and flows as people lose and find housing. Last year’s count recorded 690 people – about 100 of whom were classified as chronic homeless. In 2022,  at least 49 died on the streets from weather exposure, drug overdose, violence and other causes. 

The annual point-in-time count is a national undertaking, used to shape local and federal homelessness policy and determine funding. In Wichita, the effort is coordinated by the United Way under the direction of Cole Schnieders, manager of the Impact ICT Continuum of Care. Schnieders needs 100 volunteers to visit known shelters and encampments and survey unhoused people. 

What will volunteers do? 

Once someone is signed up, they will receive training prior to the day of the count. The training will teach volunteers how to respectfully approach camps and how to use the survey software that’s used to collect the data. 

At check-in, volunteers will be placed into groups. 

“We make sure that everyone is going out with someone who has either done the count before or who does this professionally,” Schnieders said. “It helps create safety and makes sure we conduct the survey in the most respectful and best way we can.” 

Groups will be assigned to a sector of Wichita and given areas where unhoused people normally stay. 

“Some of those places might be parts, by the river, under overpasses, under bridges, or discount stores like Goodwill. Those all tend to be places where people camp,” Schnieders said.

After volunteers find someone to survey, they explain what they survey is about, walk the person being surveyed through it, and then give items such as blankets or food to thank them for their time, regardless whether they take the survey or not. 

What to expect on count day

Schnieders says to bring comfortable shoes and a jacket. “If we are lucky it will be cold,” Schnieders said. 

Colder weather means more people will stay near their camps, making it easier to find them. It also means that there will be less moving around, preventing double counting. 

The shoes are because some walking will be needed. 

“Sometimes you will pull up to a location, such as a park that doesn’t have many trees. You can look around and easily see that no one is there and move on to your next location,” Schnieders said. “Other times, you will need to walk a mile along a river because the camps are more obscured.” 

Number from previous counts

The survey and count numbers will be used in federal and local policy along with United Way of the Plains’ own budgeting. The numbers will first be passed along to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the national count and then released locally. 

In 2022, the count found 690 homeless persons in Wichita-Sedgwick County. That is up from 619 counted in 2020. The 2021 count of 491 was artificially low due to limitations on counting because of social distancing requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

To get involved with the count and volunteer, go to United Way’s volunteer website. If you do not volunteer for counting but want to help in some other way, you can share information about camps and locations with United Way 211 Information and Referral Service at 211. You can also text 898-211. 

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