After fleeing an abusive relationship in Louisiana, Hazel Washington said she came to Wichita to move in with a family member and his girlfriend.
She didn’t know they were facing imminent eviction.
“They took my money, and I ended up being in a worse situation,” said Washington, 54. “He ended up taking me to a shelter and dropping me off.
“I’m homeless right now, but I have friends and family, I’m doing pretty well. It’s kind of hard at times, though, especially in winter time.”
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Washington was one of several hundred people without a steady home who came to the Century II convention center Thursday for the annual “point in time” count and homeless service event.
The event was dual-purpose, designed to count the homeless and connect them with community services and groups that offer help.
The purpose is to gather as much information as possible both to qualify the community for federal funding and to determine what the homeless population needs most, said Delane Butler of United Way of the Plains, which helped coordinate the event.
For about the last three years, the federally required “point in time” counting of the homeless has been done in conjunction with a community event to provide and promote services, he said. This year’s event was the biggest so far, with almost 400 volunteers and service representatives on hand to help.
A total count of the participants won’t be available for a few days because workers need to sort through the forms and eliminate duplications. In addition to the Century II event, volunteers fanned out to shelters and areas of the community where homeless people are known to congregate, Butler said.
Last year’s survey identified 538 people, down from 550 in 2012 and 634 in 2011, Butler said.
Among the day’s offerings were warm clothing, vision and health screenings, flu shots, haircuts, pedicures and even massage therapy. People were referred for appointments for longer-term needs such as housing, job training and care of chronic medical conditions.
Washington got a health screening and a follow-up appointment for a foot problem, a denture check, an eye exam and “some scarves and hats and gloves to help keep me warm,” she said.
She said she shares her living situation with a man she considers her common-law husband, a partially disabled laborer/handyman who gets work where he can find it.
“He’d rather work than just flopping around asking for a handout,” she said.
One thing that Thursday’s event made clear is there is no “typical” homeless story in Wichita. Every person there had a story of their own and their own different needs.
There were people there who work, people who don’t work, people who can’t work.
Some came to be homeless because of physical or mental illness, their own or someone else’s.
Some have clean records and some have done prison time.
Some have substance-abuse problems and some don’t.
Regardless of the back story, however, it was a day for helping.
Doug Cline, a pharmacist at the Walgreens at Harry and Edgemoor streets, gave up his day off to dispense free flu shots. He said homeless people are especially susceptible to the flu bug because they’re out and about a lot and “staying different places all the time,” often sleeping in close proximity with others in shelters.
Nearby, Christina Bourne, a second-year medical student at the University of Kansas, was working on health screenings.
One man had severe chest pains and needed paramedics’ attention, but far more common were chronic conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure, she said.
“They’re the smoldering diseases we can live with, but they cause serious problems down the road,” she said.
Those found by the screening were referred to local charity clinics for follow-up, she said.
Originally from Arizona, Bourne said she decided to go to medical school after working with the homeless for several years and seeing their health needs close up.
“I think health care is a right for everyone, regardless of income,” she said. “Everyone deserves good health.”
A lot of Wichita’s homeless people are capable of work but have criminal convictions and can’t find an employer willing to take a chance on them.
Like Michelle Estep, a 29-year-old single mother, who is living in the St. Anthony Family Shelter with two daughters.
She said she originally wound up homeless several years ago because her fiance, who was on probation, lost his job and was sent to jail. She said she has been in and out of shelters and other temporary housing ever since.
She later got a felony conviction of her own, she said, for bad checks.
“It was either write some checks or get evicted,” she said. “So I wrote some checks and still ended up getting evicted.”
She said she hopes to find work as a receptionist, in customer service or at a call center. She’s had several interviews but no offers – a result, she said, of that mark on her record.
Homelessness is a new experience for Jude Funston, 39, who is living in St. Anthony with his 7-year-old daughter. He said he was also taking care of his two disabled teenage sons, but they got evicted because one of the boys damaged their apartment.
Now, that son is a mental-health facility in Kansas City, while the other lives with his mother, Funston said. He’s knocking on doors at local businesses looking for any factory or warehouse job he can get.
Still, he’s optimistic and sees his current straits as a chance for a new start.
“Honestly, I feel better than I have in years,” he said. “We had some friends move in with us, partying all the time. This has gotten me away from that, and I can focus on caring for my child.”
About the only common theme evident among the homeless people at Thursday’s event was gratitude that there were people willing to hear their problems and try to help without judging them.
“I just talked to the Salvation Army,” Washington said, smiling. “They said if you want our help, fine. If you don’t want our help, we still love you.”
And to a reporter, she added, “Make sure you tell them I really appreciate all the volunteers who are here.”