Eagle editorial: Avoid more deaths of homeless

01/05/2014 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:20 AM

Sixty-one-old Donald L. Hipsher succumbed to hypothermia and heart problems under a downtown bridge last weekend. But he also died of the societal disease of homelessness. That shouldn’t happen in 21st-century Wichita, or so we’d like to believe.

Not in a city and county with good public services such as law enforcement and mental health treatment. Not in a community in which government, charities and churches have come together in recent years to study chronic homelessness and aggressively counter it with fundraising, new facilities and programs, and dedicated volunteers.

But Hipsher was at least the 10th person to die of various causes during 2013 among the more than 600 people who are homeless locally. The others were remembered during the eighth-annual memorial service held by the Advocates to End Chronic Homelessness on Dec. 21, the first day of winter.

Demonstrating that “the homeless” live solitary lives complicated by many factors, Hipsher exemplified the complexity of the task of helping those with few resources and no permanent housing.

The mattress he chose for his bed, under the bridge near Seneca and McLean and the Mid-America All-Indian Center, was a short walk from available shelter space on that frigid night. He reportedly resisted the offers of help by the Wichita Police Department’s three-officer Homeless Outreach Team. He even had some income, through Social Security, and with officers’ help might have been able to find an apartment.

He was said to have a drinking problem. It would not be a surprise if, like many others among the homeless, he had suffered from a mental illness that caused him to resist assistance and distrust those offering it.

On the streets, of course, such individuals are at risk of violence as well as at the mercy of Kansas’ sometimes-brutal weather.

“You can reach out many, many times, but for some people the fear of being restricted is greater than their fear of freezing to death,” Anne Corriston, executive director of Inter-Faith Ministries, told The Eagle, noting her organization also had been in contact with Hipsher.

Those shocked by Hipsher’s death can best respond to it by supporting the numerous agencies and charities that serve the homeless, including Inter-Faith Ministries, United Methodist Open Door, the Union Rescue Mission, the Lord’s Diner, Catholic Charities, Center of Hope and the Advocates to End Chronic Homelessness. The Police Department’s HOT program has its own nonprofit fund to reunite homeless people with family members elsewhere.

People also can get involved in the annual Point in Time homeless count on Jan. 30.

Perhaps most important, they can lobby their legislators and Wichita City Council and Sedgwick County commissioners to make countering homelessness a continuing priority as they try to make less tax revenue go further amid this slow economic recovery.

It will take work, dedication, dollars and persuasion, in cases such as Hipsher’s, but the goal must be avoiding more tragic deaths among Wichita’s homeless in 2014.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman

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