On the January night before this year’s annual homeless count in Sedgwick County, 9-degree temperatures were being whipped by strong winds.
It was not a night fit to be outside, so many of the homeless who normally try to brave the elements headed for shelters.
That made it easier to get a more accurate count and was one reason numbers were up this year, organizers said.
The snapshot count on Jan. 30 turned up 631 homeless in the county – 17 percent more than the previous year, ending a two-year decline, according to figures released Thursday by United Way of the Plains.
At the same time, those on the front lines of Wichita’s homeless shelters say the numbers really are increasing. Or at least they are seeing more homeless showing up for services in Wichita.
“I’ve been harping on this for years,” said Sandy Swank, director of housing and homeless services for Inter-Faith Ministries. “We’re in an urban area in a rural state. People are being forced to come to urban areas for services.”
It’s hard to pin down exact numbers because of the transient nature of a population that’s hard to find and sometimes doesn’t want to be counted.
But the method started in 2008 by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development probably is as accurate as possible, local agencies say.
That calls for communities to make a homeless count every other year. The numbers are used to plan services and measure whether steps taken are working.
United Way of the Plains, which oversees the count in Sedgwick County, has opted to do it every year – except 2010 – since the mandate began.
Taking the count means workers going to the shelters in the early morning hours of that day. More homeless are counted at a special event at Century II, where goods and services ranging from haircuts to flu shots and lunch are provided.
But the count also includes going to where the homeless typically hang out on the streets, such as under bridges. It’s easier to count people in a shelter than under bridges.
The single-digit temperatures this year actually helped the counters. Shelters saw 81 more homeless people stay overnight on the day of the count than the previous night, said Pat Hanrahan, president of United Way of the Plains.
Veterans Affairs also contributed to this year’s tally, Hanrahan said. Sixty-two veterans were identified as homeless on Jan. 30, up six from what the United Way counted last year.
This year’s total was three fewer than the peak count of 634 in 2011.
Of the 631 this year, 548 were in shelters and 83 were without any shelter – living on the streets, under bridges and in cars. The count also showed 107 people as chronically homeless, as defined by the federal government.
The snapshot count uses the same methodology each year and “provides the most accurate assessment for comparison purposes,” said Denny Bender, executive director of the Union Rescue Mission.
The mission averaged 152 men in its 114-bed shelter in 2013, up nine from the previous year, Bender said.
Inter-Faith, meanwhile, saw a 56 percent increase at its three shelters from 2012 to 2013. The nonprofit served 450 homeless people in 2012 before jumping to more than 700 last year, Swank said.
Numbers were driven this winter by more cold nights, she noted. Its Warming Souls shelter had more than 100 men on 13 nights from the time it opened in November until early March.
Wichita is noted for having good services for the homeless, Swank said.
“People around here eat really good,” she said. “If you live out there in Tribune and become homeless, there aren’t any services. This is obviously a place to settle into to get those services.”
But she said there also aren’t many jobs for them in Wichita.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say, ‘I came here to get a job,’” Swank said. “Then they tell me they were working at a part-time job somewhere else.
“I tell them they should have stayed where they were.”
Since April 2013, the mission each month has been averaging 52 men who are staying at the shelter for the first time, Bender said.
“If someone comes up with a solution to truly identify what the homeless population is, that would be quite an accomplishment,” he said. “It’s such a mobile and inaccessible community.”
But, Bender said, the growth isn’t just about the economy.
“It’s also about the growing number of men we see who have mental disorders and physical handicaps,” he said. “They’re not getting services from traditional providers, so they end up on the streets.”
He questions whether federal programs really help those facing such things as a personal crisis, disabilities, substance abuse and depression.
But, he added, “As a country and as a community, we have not helped the chronically homeless as much as is needed.”
It’s not from lack of effort, Hanrahan said.
Wichita has 14 agencies that work through United Way to meet the needs without duplicating efforts.
“We have a high degree of cooperation,” he said. “We truly try to work together and spread the services around.”
“There are complex issues. But I don’t think anyone wants to sit around on the street corner for their whole lives.”