Group conducts annual count of Wichita’s homeless

The man with the torn coat kept walking. Holly Danley from Comcare had stepped out of the car and called out, but he didn’t look at her.

She knew him as one of Wichita’s longtime homeless; she called out to him, from a few feet away, that there was food and help in plenty downtown. On Thursday, Wichita’s charities were conducting the annual homeless count, inviting hundreds of street people to Century II for food and socks, blood pressure checks and referrals for help.

The man walked south on South Topeka, his water jug dangling from the left hand stuck in a pants pocket. He walked purposefully, straight ahead; he looked healthy, sober, alert, maybe in his 30s or 40s. It was cold, 27 degrees, and he wore a thick hooded sweatshirt and a torn brown coat and paid Holly Danley no heed.

She got back in the car. She’d seen and talked to him a number of times on the regular scouting trips around town that Comcare workers take when they bring help to people. “He never even takes food or anything when we stretch out to hand it to him,” she said. Usually he stares off in the distance, like now, but he is not hostile or unfriendly. Sometimes, she said, he just laughs and turns away.

Some people talk about the poor. But others go out and find them and sort out how to help them.

Across Wichita, at 5 a.m. Thursday, people from charities, coordinated by the United Way of the Plains, began fanning out from downtown, looking for homeless people. They drove to parks, convenience stores, abandoned houses and warehouses; they stepped down under ice-cold concrete bridges.

A second wave of people went out at 7 a.m. to do the same. They continued counting until 7 p.m.

The day’s purpose was to count heads; but the larger purpose is to see who the homeless are up close. The official count won’t be verified and released for several weeks, after the charities crunch the numbers and prepare reports. Charities use the information to guage need and which services to provide, and to apply for federal grants. Last year in Wichita they counted 550 people living on the streets, in emergency shelters or in transitional housing.

Along the railroad tracks near Douglas and Santa Fe, Danley and her scouting partner, Bonnie Wheeler, found a nest outdoors — a thick length of wool that Wheeler recognized as Comcare blanket — laid out under a pine tree, on a bed of pine needles, mostly out of sight. They lifted a corner of the blanket and saw a water bottle and small bag of belongings. It was cold enough they could see their breath. This is someone’s home, Wheeler said. He probably left earlier, to go find coffee and a bite to eat in one of the places that feeds people in need.

In the weeks previous to this count day, people who help the homeless had spread the word: Show up at Century II at midmorning. There will be food and hot coffee and help, they told people.

At 10 a.m. people opened doors for the Expo Hall, and hundreds of homeless people came in, to get coffee, crackers and fruit, to get blood sugar and blood pressure checked, to get socks and underwear. They could also get haircuts.

Some standing in the line after the doors opened wore the long beards and long hair of men of the street; some carried portable car seats with children in them. They were black, white, old, young, mentally ill or just down on their luck. In Century II they were friendly and quiet.

In the car, as they rode the streets looking, Danley and Wheeler talked about what they’d seen. Most of the homeless, perhaps three out of four, they said, are probably suffering from some form of mental illness. Most are men, but Danley and Wheeler said they would see more women homeless if women more often left their abusive partners. But they don’t.

Last year, Wheeler said, they came across a family — a man, woman and six kids — living in the winter cold in their car. Somehow, Wheeler said, they managed during weeks of homelessness, to keep the kids in school, sending them to classrooms in the day, sleeping with them in their car at night.

There are many stories of the homeless, Wheeler said. She said she likes Wichita, having come here years ago from working in southwest Kansas, and she said the difference is that there are more resources in Wichita, “and people in Wichita are really, incredibly generous.” A church got together after they found out about those six children in the car and made sure they got Christmas presents last year.

At Century II, Anna Parks, 29, was pushing her daughter Klohei Parks, 5, in a stroller. Off to the side stood her son, Kael, 5, happy to have his picture taken by a newspaper photographer. Her mother, Anita Mitchell, had come with her to Century II. Anna takes her four kids to the Lord’s Diner sometimes. And they know the days and the hours when local churches hand out food pantry boxes. They move from house to house, from friend to friend.

Some of the people who came for help at Century II looked scruffy, as though they lived under bridges, as some do. But many wore clean clothes and had washed and brushed their hair. A man in the crowd reached down to a woman’s head, brushing her hair into place with his hand. She reached up and nicked a fleck of something off his cheek.

A woman in a motorized wheelchair moved from table to table, picking up items and a cup of hot chocolate. Two backpacks hung from the back of her chair. She was apparently wearing all she owned — wearing her heavy coat and blanket and stocking cap and thick winter scarf inside Century II even though it felt cozy indoors. She had taken the trouble, before coming here, to put on makeup. In one corner of the Expo Hall, young people were giving haircuts and styling hair. Luella Sanders of the United Way said that one of the reasons many people refuse to admit homelessness is that they don’t want to lose one of their last possessions, their dignity.

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