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Wichita police outreach workers help disabled woman escape homelessness

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, March 8, 2013, at 6:07 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, Sep. 30, 2013, at 5:49 a.m.

Theresa Swearingen had been living under the Pawnee Avenue Bridge for more than a year and a half.

“Since a year ago August,” she said Friday. “To get real technical, a year ago Aug. 17.”

Swearingen, who is disabled and survives on $200 a month in food stamps, moved into a new home Friday thanks to the efforts of the Wichita Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team.

The three officers on the team, which was assembled this year, have been given the assignment of establishing contact with the city’s homeless, trying to build trust and finding help for those who need and want it.

Two members of the team, Greg Feuerborn and Nate Schwiethale, backed a police van up to the east side of the Pawnee Avenue Bridge over the lunch hour Friday, loaded up Swearingen’s belongings and hauled them to her new apartment in the 2200 block of South Broadway.

They said they found Swearingen a home through the city- and county-funded Housing First program, which helps find subsidized apartments for people who are chronically homeless.

A 2011 count found that Wichita had 550 homeless residents, 142 of whom were considered chronically homeless.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve had a home like this,” Swearingen said as she toured her new apartment. “I like it. It’s really nice.”

Swearingen, who is 57 and a native of Illinois, said she came to Kansas in 1989 because of “a man.”

“That man was the biggest mistake I ever made in my life,” she said.

Swearingen said she broke her neck in a car accident in Illinois in 1972, and lingering effects of that accident make it difficult for her to walk today.

For 17 years, Swearingen said, she worked and lived at a junkyard north of Wichita. She managed the office by day, she said, and watched out for “midnight shoppers” after dark. Not long after the owner sold the business and retired, she said, she found herself without a home.

She said she started camping out under the Pawnee Avenue Bridge because she was familiar with the neighborhood. She set up her home with blankets that block the wind whether it’s coming from the north or south.

“I’ve got a sleeping bag that’s good to 26 below zero, and two that are good to 25 below,” she said. “I never sleep in less than two of them when it’s really cold.”

Swearingen said she picks up odd jobs when she can find them and hopes to find permanent employment. She most recently earned $20 for helping an elderly woman do her Christmas shopping.

“It was $20 more than I had,” Swearingen said. “And I got to get out of here for a while.”

In addition to helping the homeless, members of the Homeless Outreach Team respond to calls involving homeless people. Feuerborn said they can be reached through their cellphone at 316-854-3013.

Reach Hurst Laviana at 316-268-6499 or hlaviana@wichitaeagle.com.

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