Wichita police team helps homeless with housing, counseling and health care

Kenneth Mathews found himself in a familiar spot Friday morning: the rear seat of a police car.

Except this time, there were no handcuffs.

As he sat outside the library at about 9:30 a.m., two officers, Greg Feuerborn and Nate Schwiethale, walked up to Mathews as they’ve done many times over the years. On Friday, however, they were there to take Mathews to his new apartment.

“I’ve known this guy about my whole career,” Schwiethale said. “I remember writing him tickets for things like drinking in public and public urination.”

Mathews, 51, who said he has been homeless for more than 20 years in Wichita, usually spends his days in and around the downtown library, sleeping under bridges and wondering where he’ll get his next meal. The time had come for a change, he said.

“I’ll be glad to get in a place,” Mathews said. “You know, I’m getting old and tired of this.”

Mathews is the latest person to benefit from the Homeless Outreach team. The team, an initiative of the Wichita Police Department, works to be proactive in the homeless community to eliminate the “revolving door” from the street to the jail, Schwiethale said.

“This is a different approach to law enforcement,” he said. “We put a lot of effort into getting out in front of any problems.”

The housing program is just one way the team works with the homeless. It also helps them get in touch with counseling, health and mental health care, and reunite them with family, to name a few.

There is a waiting list for the housing program. But things such as finding employment or enrolling in counseling programs can help some homeless move up the list.

About a month ago, Mathews enrolled in the Options program, which helps those with alcohol and drug problems. The program has been able to place 26 homeless people in permanent or temporary housing since February. The funding for the program is split evenly between the county and city government.

Mathews’ rent and utility bills will be paid for by the program until his disability checks are approved. Mathews walks with a limp and says he has to use a cane because of a motorcycle accident years ago, which has hindered his ability to work.

The outreach team began the process of moving him in about a week ago, when it took Mathews apartment hunting and to pick out furniture. Mathews said he didn’t believe the officers at first.

“They came and picked me up last week and said we were going to go look at apartments,” Mathews said. “When they came to pick me up, I said, ‘You want me to sit in the front seat?’

“I said to myself, ‘OK, it’s really happening now.’ ”

Both Mathews and the officers said they know the transition won’t be easy at first. Mathews has had troubles with depression and anxiety in the past.

Counseling will be part of the program if Mathews needs it. He also needed to have his application approved – no felonies or prior evictions – which was quickly approved.

“It’s the institutionalization of being familiar with life on the streets,” Schwiethale said. “The hard part is getting them familiar with their new lifestyle … we have to be patient.”

Brett Stull, another officer on the outreach team, said the program is meant to help the homeless start a life away from the streets.

“They’re not all criminals,” Stull said. “A lot just need some help.”

Mathews’ apartment wasn’t much – a recliner, a television, a dresser and a pull-out bed – but it was more than enough.

“I’m trading camping out every night for this,” Mathews said. “It’s a place where you can wash your clothes and trim your beard – the little stuff like that.”

Sitting in his new recliner on Friday, Mathews rocked back and forth with a look of gratitude on his face. It still hadn’t quite hit him that he would have a place to sleep with a roof over his head.

“I was still sitting at the library the other day and thinking, ‘I’m still not sure this is real,’ ” Mathews said. “But this, this is real.”

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