People lined up to get on a bus. The last one is in a wheelchair.
Around 25 people get on the Union Rescue Mission bus outside of United Methodist Open Door. Both are resources that try to help Wichita’s unhoused population. The person in the wheelchair was unable to board the bus. (Trace Salzbrenner/The Wichita Beacon)

Wichita’s homelessness task force is looking to learn from the past. At the March 22 task force meeting, Sedgwick County Deputy Manager Tim Kaufman reviewed the work of the previous task force that formed in 2006 to help homelessness in Wichita. Specifically, Kaufman discussed which recommendations were successfully implemented and which were not and why.  

The previous task force was called the Taskforce to End Chronic Homelessness. Its focus was somewhat different than the current task force as it was focused on chronically homeless people, defined as unaccompanied persons with a disabling condition who have been continuously homeless for at least one year or had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.

The current task force’s goals are broader in that they are looking at all people affected by homelessness. 

Sedgwick County Commissioner Ryan Baty, one of two elected officials on the current task force, said in an interview after the meeting, “My focus was to understand what went well, yes, but to also understand what didn’t go well. I believed the most fruitful was to learn where the misses were.” 

What did the 2006 homelessness task force recommend?

The previous task force met over 16 months to determine what they believed was the best way forward to address housing in Wichita for the chronically homeless. This was because the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development asked them to focus on this group, but also because they believed lessons learned could be more broadly applied. 

That task force issued their report in 2008, making five key recommendations: 

  1. Create a one-stop resource and referral center.
  2. Implement a “housing first” approach and develop 64 permanent support housing options. “Housing First” is the idea that once someone is housed they are better able to benefit from other services such as counseling, therapy and job placement.
  3. Create more emergency housing in Wichita until the new permanent supportive housing is achieved. 
  1. Find sustainable funding for existing and new programs supporting this population.
  2. Create an oversight committee to follow through in implementation of the recommendations. 

Where did the previous task force succeed?

The 2006 task force’s first, second, third and fifth suggestions had initial success. United Methodist Open Door at 402 E. Second St. N. became a one-stop referral center and started to help people through the multiple avenues of services. (211 and United Way’s Continuum of Care would later help with this.) 

New emergency housing was created and the city adopted a housing-first program. However, shortly after the housing program was up and running, the oversight committee was disbanded, leaving no one to follow through on finding sustainable funding. Upkeep of emergency housing would also fall short.

According to an interview The Wichita Beacon did in 2021 with the executive director of United Methodist Open Door, Deann Smith, it was particularly hard to find the money to keep expanding the program during the 2008 recession. 

The 2006 task force estimated it would take $2.8 million to $4.2 million to get its recommended strategies adequately started and an additional $1 million a year to keep them running.

The pursuit of sustainable funding

Due to the disbandment of the oversight committee, no continuous funding source was found to keep all of the services running. 

Lack of funding drove many of the programs to become outdated quickly. Kaufman specifically shows the implementation of emergency housing as having a good start but being no longer adequate. 

“HumanKind and Advocates to End Chronic Homelessness picked up the fundraising for [emergency housing]…” Kaufman said in an interview after the meeting. “But costs have increased, and in the last few years I know there have been struggles to get that financial backing to [fully] operate the winter overflow shelter and other emergency housing.” 

The 2006 task force suggested future funding could come from a combination of support from foundations, businesses and individuals. Next, it recommended that United Way and the faith community should increase their existing support. 

Finally, the plan stated that the city of Wichita and Sedgwick County needed to increase their funding of the programs and “aggressively” pursue state and federal grants to bolster that support. 

“I believe that the reason there hasn’t been any sustainable funding is because the way nonprofits, nongovernmental organizations, get their money is through donations,” Kaufman said. “And they are the ones who provide a bulk of our services…. But, they have to deal with donor fatigue and other challenges to get people to keep giving money.” 

Learning from the past to help homelessness in Wichita

Baty said the current task force’s duty is to find the gaps that have come to light since the previous task force’s work. 

“The macro environment really has changed,” Baty said. While many of the underlying issues are the same, new factors have arisen like the fentanyl crisis and increased need for mental health services. 

“It’s been a significant amount of time, so it would be good to look at what other evidence-based solutions other communities have been able to implement,” Kaufman said. “And also look at expanding the successful programs we already have.” 

Baty said that the current task force should next learn about the scope of homelessness and how people fall through Wichita’s current system of support. An example he gave is unhoused families, which do not qualify for help under programs established by the 2006 task force, which limited its focus to individuals over 18.

“This is the ultimate goal. We need to make a comprehensive plan first and then work backwards to make sure all of our gaps are filled and we have the resources for it,” Baty said, and he hopes looking at the previous task force’s work will help with that. 

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