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Man’s death under bridge shows challenges of homeless outreach

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, Dec. 30, 2013, at 7:51 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, April 1, 2014, at 11:42 a.m.

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More than 600 homeless people live in Wichita.

One died last weekend.

The 61-year-old man became the 10th homeless person known to have died in Wichita this year, according to police and service providers.

He didn’t have to stay under the bridge near Seneca and McLean while temperatures plunged from the mid-50s to 18 degrees overnight Saturday.

There was room at one of several shelters, providers and authorities said. In recent months, police had repeatedly asked him to let them take him to a shelter.

“He was resistant,” said Officer Nate Schwiethale, part of the police department’s three-officer Homeless Outreach Team, which works to direct homeless people to agencies that can help them.

“He didn’t want to be confined in places,” Schwiethale said.

The man’s body was found about 1 p.m. Sunday when officers were called to check on his welfare.

Those who work with the homeless know the man’s name, but police aren’t releasing it officially until they confirm his ID through fingerprints, Lt. Doug Nolte said.

The official cause of death is still pending outcome of an autopsy, a Sedgwick County official said.

The homeless outreach unit, beat police officers and outreach teams for the Wichita Children’s Home and Inter-Faith Ministries all regularly try to get homeless people to shelters and service providers.

Schwiethale and other officers knew the man.

“I’ve met with him multiple times,” Schwiethale said. “He’s been in Wichita for awhile. A lot of people knew him.”

Several of his homeless friends left their camp under the bridge several months ago and found housing, Schwiethale said. But no one could convince him to leave his home under the bridge.

“It’s tragic,” Schwiethale said. “He did have some income, through Social Security. He had enough money to live in housing. We could have tried to get him an apartment.”

The man had a drinking problem, Schwiethale said. He added he wasn’t qualified to determine whether the man also had a mental illness.

Mental illness is often a reason homeless people refuse to leave the streets, service providers say.

“A lot of them just don’t want to be around other people,” said Tom Myers, who oversees the men’s shelter at the Union Rescue Mission. “For whatever reason, they just want to stay out. They feel boxed in if they come to a shelter.”

He said there was room for more people at the rescue mission Saturday night, when the wind chill hovered between zero and 5 above.

The rescue mission is one of about a dozen shelters in Wichita. Some focus on victims of domestic violence, the mentally ill, substance abusers or children.

And rules apply, noted Sgt. Brett Stull, who oversees the homeless outeach unit.

“They come in inebriated or get into fights,” he said. “Some are openly banned from shelters because they won’t follow the rules.”

There are also ways to work around the rules.

As for those who have been drinking, Myers said, “We let them come in and sleep it off. But we warn them they can’t do this again.”

When a homeless person flat-out refuses to be helped – even on cold nights – little can be done.

“Being homeless isn’t a crime,” Schwiethale said. “But we have some tools if they refuse help.”

A homeless person who is drinking or panhandling can be given a diversion ticket – sort of like a warning ticket for speeding – so they can be taken somewhere to get help, he said.

Rick Cline, pastor at the downtown RiverWalk Church of Christ and an active member of Advocates to End Chronic Homelessness, said groups worked together a number of years ago to establish overflow shelters so a homeless person could always find a warm bed on a cold night.

“But there are a number out there, that no matter what you do, they like being on the street,” Cline said. “There are some who are hard core, who crowds make them nervous.

“It’s sad, though, that this had to happen. We hate hearing this because that’s why these groups exist – to provide shelters and services.”

Since the HOT program began in February, the unit has been able to get more than 100 homeless people off the streets and into some form of housing.

It also takes many, many contacts to build up trust with a homeless person. More than 80 contacts are sometimes needed for those who are mentally ill, Schwiethale said.

Multiple contacts with the man who was found dead Sunday weren’t enough, he added.

“He just didn’t want help at this time,” Schwiethale said. “We needed to make more contacts with him.”

Reach Rick Plumlee at 316-268-6660 or rplumlee@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @rickplumlee.

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