Lynne and Matt sitting in the car
Lynne Hunter and Matt Mercer were paired up to help survey Wichita’s unhoused population. (Trace Salzbrenner/The Wichita Beacon)

With temperatures in the 20s before dawn on Jan. 26, tired-eyed volunteers with their breath freezing in the air began to gather in downtown Wichita at United Methodist Open Door. Each of them bundled up with warm clothes to keep the breeze from nipping at them.

Retired teacher Lynne Hunter, 69, drove nearly an hour from Winfield to help, and still got here earlier than most. This was her first time to serve in the annual point-in-time count of Wichita’s homeless population. The United Way of the Plains Continuum of Care (CoC) program conducts the count every year to gather info required for federal grants. 

Hunter sat in a corner at the Open Door facility, which provides shelter and services to the homeless. In a larger conference room, tables and chairs were pushed to the walls to accommodate the operation. 

Volunteers checked in at one table. At another, the volunteers received assignments about where they would need to go to find people to count. Donuts and coffee were provided to wake everyone up. 

The final table was the busiest. Workers stuffed drawstring bags with helpful items to give out to any unhoused person they survey. Included in the bags were tampons, wet wipes and other important toiletries.

While it was Hunter’s first time, the United Way has been doing this for at least 10 years and organizers now had the process operating like a well-oiled machine. 

Hunter was partnered with Matt Mercer, the manager for Wichita’s Section 8 program, who has helped with the count for several years, and a journalist from The Wichita Beacon. The three were sent to a section between Kellogg Avenue and Harry Street on the north and south and I-235 and Meridian Street on the east and west. 

The location is mostly industrial with bits of residential areas in between, small but requiring a lot of active searching.

A reason to help

Asked why she’s here, in the cold, looking for homeless people, Hunter first says, “How can I not help?”

Pressed to say more, she explains what drives her to do this. She grew up in a privileged home, Hunter says. Her father was a pharmacist and she was able to live comfortably in her childhood. 

“I was a little naive,” Hunter says. “Maybe very naive.” 

Her perspective changed when she went to Botswana 30 years ago. She went as part of a mission trip, but while there she noticed something: Other countries were doing more to help than the United States. This did not match her image of her own country. 

When she got back, those thoughts didn’t stop. She saw problems here in the U.S. that it seemed to her not enough was being done about. That inspired her to start a long list of volunteer work. 

“I try to be encouraging because there are so many ways to help,” Hunter said. 

 a man holding up a cardboard sign
Once someone is found, volunteers ask questions for the Wichita homeless survey, direct them to resources and hand them a bag of helpful items. (Trace Salzbrenner/The Wichita Beacon)

Surveying Wichita’s unhoused population

Teams of volunteers like Hunter’s spent large chunks of time slowly driving through alleyways looking for any sign of someone living there. Hunter took the passenger seat, steadily looking from one point to the next. 

Some areas checked did show signs of camps – such as discarded items, bags and clothes. But most people appeared to have left the area, likely due to the subfreezing temperatures. 

The point-in-time count is conducted during January when a majority of the unhoused population is within group shelters or easily noticeable camps. It helps reduce the number of people who might be missed. 

Hunter’s team also looked through rear parking lots of large businesses, next to convenience stores where there is cheap food and under overpasses. The team only came across one man standing at an intersection of two roads looking for help.  

With no place to park near the man, Hunter immediately volunteers to get out so he could be counted. Counting involves more than writing down numbers. Volunteers are expected to survey each person and ask a number of questions. 

Hunter brings up the survey on her phone. “Do you currently have a place to stay?” she asks. “Are you caring for anyone right now?”

The man says he is staying in a hotel with his wife. He’s been trying to find work but having difficulty because of a criminal record from mistakes made a few years back.

Hunter thanks him for his time and his story and hands over two bags of supplies, one for his wife and one for him. 

What comes next from the Wichita homeless survey

Volunteer teams worked across the city until noon. The next step is for the Continuum of Care team to sort the survey data and then send it to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Then it will be compiled with national data and packaged into a report for the U.S. Congress. 

Local numbers will be released around April or May. The local survey information will be used by United Way of the Plains as well and the city of Wichita to shape budgets and housing programs. 

Hunter finished her role in the count slightqly earlier than most, but her day was just starting. Every Thursday she helps with her church’s free grab-and-go meals for anyone to take. Hunter is used to long days. She was a teacher. 

When she was young she wanted to be a biologist. But, through life circumstances she chose to be a teacher instead. 

“To be honest I wasn’t very good at it,” Hunter says. 

She even claimed to dislike it at times, but she knew it was important and worked hard to become the best teacher she could. She learned how to do better and be better in the position and ended up being a teacher until she retired in 2019. 

By retirement, Hunter said she ended up loving teaching. It was a way to help the next generation start on the right path and, as a health teacher in rural Kansas, she knew her class was important. 

And, just like her perseverance with teaching, Hunter was nowhere near done with helping however she could. She checked out with the Continuum of Care, ready for the next mission.

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