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Cold brings homeless to overflow shelter

Sandy Swank said she would not be able to sleep if she knew there was no place for homeless people to stay, especially in the cold.

When she wakes up and temperatures are dangerously low, as they are forecast to be this week, she said she feels better knowing people can come to the Warming Souls Winter Overflow Shelter.

"If they really want to get in, they have a place to stay," said Swank, director of housing and homeless services for Inter-Faith Ministries.

Forecasts call for dangerously cold temperatures for much of the week, with scattered snow flurries. A cold front is predicted to reach the area Wednesday, causing temperatures to drop into the single digits with wind chills near minus 20 degrees overnight.

For homeless people, low temperatures make frostbite a problem, which Swank said many do not realize they have until weeks later.

During the winter months, overflow shelter staff members look for people to bring in off the streets, Swank said.

"Some people are just afraid to come in there, and they won't come in unless they absolutely have to," Swank said.

The shelter, funded by the Advocates to End Chronic Homelessness, is run by Inter-Faith, which also operates two other shelters.

In January, the shelter will be at First United Methodist Church, 330 N. Broadway. The shelter, which operates November through March, is hosted by different churches each month.

Men stay in the churches, and women at one of Inter-Faith's other shelters. The overflow shelter is open from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Sunday night, 62 men and 12 women were housed by Inter-Faith's overflow shelters, but Swank said she expects the number to increase. She said people often tolerate cold weather for a couple of nights before coming to the shelter.

In January 2009, volunteers counted 384 homeless people in Sedgwick County as part of a nationwide annual survey.

Janis Cox, co-chairwoman of Advocates to End Chronic Homelessness, said there are seven emergency shelters in Wichita, but all except Inter-Faith's are open to only a certain group of people, like families, battered women with children, men or the mentally ill.

"They're all pretty targeted," Cox said. "That's why you end up with empty shelters and people who can't get in there because they don't fit the category."

Teresa Kunze, spokeswoman for Catholic Charities, said the organization directs people to the overflow shelter because its St. Anthony Family Shelter stays full. The shelter only houses homeless families.

"We always have a waiting list for people to get in, no matter what the temperature is,'' she said.

With the overflow shelter, other local organizations sometimes see a drop in their services.

Marsha Stanyer, executive director of the Union Rescue Mission, said there is a minimal decrease in the shelter's numbers during this time of year because other places are available.

The mission, at 2800 N. Hillside, is a men's facility. Stanyer said men can stay at the shelter in the morning, but buses are available to take people downtown.

"We usually allow them to stay, and definitely when the weather gets below 40, more of them think about staying," Stanyer said.

Even with cold temperatures, she said, most prefer to leave during the day.

Wendy Glick, executive director of the Lord's Diner, said the diner serves fewer people when the overflow shelter is operating. Glick said that is because the churches where the shelter is located offer free meals.

Although cold temperatures can affect the numbers in local shelters, Swank said homelessness is a continuous problem.

"It's everywhere, all the time," she said.

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