Janis Cox: Community working to reduce homelessness

02/28/2013 12:00 AM

02/27/2013 5:58 PM

Because there is confusion about how people are counted as homeless, numbers from different types of counts may give the impression that homelessness has dramatically increased in Wichita. That is not the case, nor has there been a great increase in homeless services.

The Point in Time Count is taken during one 24-hour period in January and is the only recognized and confirmed count of people who are literally homeless (living on the streets or in shelters) in Sedgwick County. In 2007 the count reported a total of 526 homeless individuals. In 2008 the count reported 473. In 2011 a greater effort to reach the homeless for the count was initiated and 634 were reported. In 2012 the number dropped to 550.

As a part of the PIT count, the subgroup of chronically homeless individuals has been tabulated each of those years. That number is much smaller; in January 2012 it was 142.

The Wichita school district also keeps track of homeless children in its schools. Officials use different criteria for counting homeless children, including in their count not only children on the streets and in shelters, but those who are doubling up with other families. This type of homelessness is mostly hidden from public view. The number of school-age children who were homeless by the school district definition during the current school year recently was reported as nearly 1,900.

Contrary to popular belief, the number of overnight beds has not increased over the past several years. The permanent overnight shelters have not expanded, except for the 2007 rebuild at Anthony Family Shelter to accommodate four more families. No new overnight shelters have been added.

Many people are confused about the services offered by Open Door, a United Methodist ministry. In 2012 Open Door replaced its previous scattered facilities (including a homeless drop-in center taken as part of the downtown YMCA project) with a new facility that included expanded space to accommodate centralization of services and day shelter from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. It does not offer day shelter on weekends or holidays, nor does it offer overnight beds. It is intended to be a resource center to help homeless individuals move out of homelessness more quickly, and resources are growing as more agencies become collaborators.

The Lord’s Diner, Vision cards, food pantries and safety-net clinics are available to citizens of limited means, not just the homeless. Such services actually help prevent homelessness by helping the working poor make ends meet.

The focus in Wichita in recent years has not been on offering more services that maintain people in homelessness, but on changes within agencies and collaboration between agencies to provide more effective services, including prevention and permanent housing. These evolving changes are based on best practices around the country.

The economy since 2008 has resulted in the loss of many local jobs, leading to the loss of income for food, clothing, transportation, insurance and housing. The great majority of homeless individuals do not remain homeless, but pass through it and return to self-sufficiency. However, getting out of homelessness is not easy, and service providers work hard to assist this process. The number of people unable to escape homelessness in our community would be much higher if not for service providers. Our community should be applauded for working together to help prevent and end homelessness for individuals and families.

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