If there are 500 homeless people in Wichita, there are 500 stories about how they got here.
Jason McKinley's begins on a Greyhound bus headed to San Francisco. He was stranded in northern Kansas when his wallet disappeared during a stop at Casey's General Store in Belleville.
McKinley, 27, was living in Salina this spring when a tight job market and dwindling bank account pushed him to the edge of homelessness. A friend dropped him off at the Union Rescue Mission in Wichita.
McKinley quickly became disillusioned with the mission, and has since learned the ins and outs of living on Wichita streets. He's found places to eat, sleep and clean up, and he knows where he can log onto the Internet with his laptop. He's also learned to steer clear of the violent side of life on the streets.
But McKinley said hasn't figured out how to deal with what he and many other homeless people consider their biggest obstacle: the Wichita Police Department.
"We have to constantly be on the alert for police officers," McKinley said last week as he and a dozen other homeless people gathered in Heritage Square Park in downtown Wichita. "They'll stop us for anything they can think of."
As the sun went down, the crowd thinned.
"A lot of them will scatter as soon as it gets dark," McKinley said. "It's not because of crime or anything. It's because of the police."
While McKinley and others at the park are convinced they are weathering a new police crackdown, police officials said that's not true.
Officers do respond to complaints, police officials said. If complaints about the homeless are up, they said, it might seem like a crackdown to the targets of those complaints.
McKinley felt strongly enough about the issue last week that he said he signed up to discuss it at the Sept. 14 Wichita City Council meeting. He also said he's put up fliers at homeless hangouts asking others to attend.
Wichita police Capt. Troy Livingston heads the Department's Patrol South Bureau, which oversees Heritage Square Park and many downtown areas where the homeless gather.
"There has been no directive from me to increase enforcement on any group of people," Livingston said.
"We police parks just like we police the rest of the city. If we get a complaint we respond to it. If we see a violation we respond to it."
Livingston said he's asking his officers this summer to focus on burglaries. He said a crackdown on the homeless isn't on his radar screen.
Those who work regularly with the homeless seem to agree with Livingston.
Dan Catlin, known as "Pastor Dan" to many, has been feeding and ministering to Wichita's homeless for more than a decade.
"I sympathize with the police on this," he said Friday as three dozen homeless people gathered at his Messiah's Branch at 900 S. Broadway.
"The police are very tolerant of the homeless, I think. It's just that the people who run the city, they want to clean up downtown. And I understand that, too."
Every spring, Catlin said, police seem to push the homeless away from downtown right before the River Festival. Every fall, he said, the homeless are pushed away from the downtown library, which attracts more children after the start of the school year.
Heritage Square Park, where McKinley and his friends often gather, is about a block east of the library. Police on Saturday issued several open containers violations at the park at 115 E. William.
Sandy Swank, director of housing and homeless services for Inter-Faith Ministries, said she thinks that Wichita police officers are generally considerate of the homeless.
"I think they're really pretty well educated, and I think they try to help people in most cases," she said.
Swank also said that many of the traditional gathering areas for the homeless have disappeared in recent years as redevelopment has taken over parts of downtown.
Swank said she's heard of other cities outside Kansas where police have been aggressive in pushing the homeless away from downtown areas.
"I just haven't seen that here," she said. "I've seen more of a cooperation with the homeless."
In January 2009, volunteers for the Point in Time Count of Homeless Persons found 384 homeless people living in Sedgwick County. That was down from the 473 who were counted in 2008.
Catlin said the number is probably much higher because many homeless people are unwilling to cooperate with the surveys.
"Two-thirds of them are never counted," he said.
McKinley said his stay at the Union Rescue Mission was short. He said he was turned off by the fact that there were parolees staying there.
Others who gathered last week at Heritage Square Park said they were turned off by the religious atmosphere at the mission, at 2800 N. Hillside, or by the fact that it's always crowded.
"That's not a shelter," Michael Hailings said. "That's just warehousing human beings."
Hailings said he thinks crackdowns on the city's homeless comes in cycles.
During an up-cycle several years ago, he said, he held a "sleep-in" at Heritage Square Park to protest police sweeps that were forcing the homeless out of the park. During the three-night protest, he said, officers stayed away.
Outside the Lord's Diner last week, Bobby Hawkins said he often felt pressured by police.
"Wherever we go, it seems like the cops always harass us," he said. "And we don't have a lot of places to go. ... Why can't they give us somewhere to stay?"
Hawkins said he and his wife became homeless after they lost their jobs at a temporary agency and then lost their apartment.
"There are people who've been homeless for years, and they like it, I guess," he said. "Well, we don't like it. We're not used to it.
"I don't know what else to do except to try to survive out here."
Catlin, the minister, said there are homeless shelters in Wichita, but they're always short on beds.
"We have shelters, yes, but there's not enough room," he said. "There's not enough room at the inn."
Looking back, McKinley said he doesn't know where he would have ended up had his wallet not disappeared during that trip to the Casey's General Store in Belleville.
In addition to cash and pre-paid credit cards worth several hundred dollars, he said, the wallet contained the only picture he had of his daughter. She was adopted by a West Virginia couple shortly after she was born, he said.
McKinley said he thought about contacting the credit card company and going on to San Francisco.
"If it hadn't been for that picture, I'd have stayed on the bus," he said.